Ivorians lead the way for the first time
© AFP

Côte d'Ivoire won their first-ever African U-17 Championship when they beat the favourites Nigeria 5-4 on penalties in the final in the Moroccan city of Marrakech after the match ended 1-1 at the end of 90 minutes. The victory was the second time the Baby Elephants had beaten the Golden Eaglets at the tournament. The two countries will be joined by north African rivals Tunisia and Morocco, who finished third and fourth respectively, as the continent's representatives at the FIFA U-17 World Cup United Arab Emirates 2013. 

The qualifiers
Côte d'Ivoire reached the semi-finals of the event in 2011, and the Baby Elephants performed even better this time around. Drawn into the Group of Death with African heavyweights Nigeria and Ghana, the Ivorians did not have the best of starts as they were held to a 1-1 draw by Congo. This placed Ibrahim Kamara's side under pressure in their next game against two-time champions Nigeria, but Dogbole Niangbo's last-gasp goal gave the side the three points they needed. Not assured of a place in the semi-finals ahead of their final group game against Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire held on for the draw they required to finish runners-up in the group.

Released of the pressure of qualification, they then breezed past the hosts 2-1. In the final, the Ivorians fell behind to an early Nigerian goal scored by Izu Omego, but Bile Bedia equalised midway through the first half after running into space following a free-kick. After the 90 minutes ended 1-1, the winners had to be decided in a penalty shoot-out with the Ivorians prevailing as all five of their players converted their spot-kicks, with Niangbo scoring the decisive fifth after goalkeeper Aboubakar Diabagate saved Chidiebere Nwakali's penalty. Côte d’Ivoire captain Franck Kessie said that it had not been a struggle: "Nothing is easy on earth. We had to stick together to move forward and achieve this for all the people of Côte d’Ivoire. I am proud because we had a hard time winning this trophy, but we dedicate this victory to all the Ivorians.”

Like for Côte d'Ivoire and Congo, the competition began in the worst possible way for Nigeria as three of their players were barred from the competition as CAF ruled their ages questionable. The controversy seemed not to perturb the Golden Eaglets though, as they ran riot against a ten-man Ghana side in their opening match - recording a 6-1 win, with striker Success Isaac scoring four goals. Defeat against the eventual champions left Nigeria needing to win their final group match against Congo to be assured of a place in the semi-finals and again the west Africans slammed in the goals as they won 7-0 to advance to the next round with a 13-2 goal difference from their three matches. They scored another four in a 4-2 semi-final victory against Tunisia, but then came up unlucky in the final as they had Akinjide Idowu sent off and then missed a single spot-kick. Nigerian coach Manu Garba was disappointed with the result. "Our aim was to come here and win this trophy and make Nigerians happy," he said.

Tunisia did all the hard work in their two opening matches, as they first beat Botswana and then Gabon to be assured of a place in the semi-finals - and the FIFA U-17 World Cup - ahead of their last group match, which they then duly drew 1-1 against the Moroccans. In the round of the last-four, they were no match for the Golden Eaglets, and their play-off for third place had to be decided on penalties after a 1-1 draw and it took 24 penalties before Tunisia finally won 11-10.

The hosts Morocco were making their first appearance at the championships and had achieved their goal already after beating Gabon 4-1 and Botswana 3-0. A draw against Tunisia saw them top their group, but in the semi-final, Côte d'Ivoire proved too strong as they lost 2-1. In the third-place play-off Younes Bnou Marzouk managed to level matters, but their luck ran out in the long shoot-out.

The other pretenders
In Group A Botswana's run of not winning a game continued, as the only team from southern Africa lost all three group matches, taking their tournament record to zero for nine. Rookies Gabon were also knocked out of the tournament after their two opening matches, but they ended their participation on a high as they beat Botswana 3-1. Two-time African and world champions Ghana never really recovered from the drubbing by Nigeria, although a 1-1 draw in their next game against Congo kept them in the competition. But they failed to beat the Ivorians in their final match and were knocked out, missing the FIFA U-17 World Cup for only the fifth time in their history. Congo, who escaped the group phase at Mexico 2011, were knocked out after being on the receiving end of the hiding by Nigeria in their final game, having two men sent off.

Ones to watch
Nigeria’s aptly named Success Isaac scored seven goals in five matches and was ably supported by Kelechi Iheanacho, who scored five. The most impressive players in the Ivorian side were goalkeeper Diabagate, striker Niangbo, as well as captain Kessie. Moroccan defender Mohamed El Bouazzati looked the part and could be a player for the future, while Marzouk showed that he is handy in front of goal as he scored four. Hazem Haj Hassen got the same number for Tunisia, for whom captain Chamseddine Samti also drew notice.