Twice runner-ups but now continental champions, it was a case of ‘third-time lucky’ as Burkina Faso secured a first-ever African crown with success at the CAF African U-17 Championship in Rwanda over the weekend. A 2-1 win over the home nation in Saturday’s final in Kigali ended a roller coaster ride for both sides with the Burkinabe bouncing back after a losing start and Rwanda coming so close to realising their vast investment in youth football over recent years.

Both countries are now headed to Mexico for the 2011 FIFA U-17 World Cup in mid-year, along with Côte d’Ivoire and Congo, who were eliminated in the semi-finals last week. For Rwanda, they can console themselves after the defeat with qualification for a first-ever FIFA tournament.

A final to remember
Burkina Faso’s teenagers, who had lost to the home nation by the reverse score on the opening day of the two-week tournament, overcame considerable adversity in the deciding game to lift the trophy. In a match, where some of the tackling belied the youthful age of the protagonists, and where the vociferously vocal home crowd were all expecting success, Burkina stuck to their task despite all the potential distractions, proving solid in defence and taking their chances up front.

Not even the sending off of defender Bassirou Kanazoe with 30 minutes left in the final shifted them from their task and, in the end, they handed heartbreak to the home nation. A dramatic long-range winner from Abdoul Aziz Kabore near the end of the game stunned the crowd at the Amahoro National Stadium into silence, a sullen cloud of shock descending over the venue as the ball poignantly trickled back into play after bouncing back off the back of the net.

Rwandans are disappointed with the result, but it’s a satisfaction because we played a final for the first time and we’re going to the World Cup.

Rwanda coach Richard Tandy

Burkina Faso had done well to keep the mood in the stadium tense as they proved the equal of their opponents in the first-half exchanges. Justin Mico could have had Rwanda ahead had he not squandered two good chances, but Burkina could also point to some rapid-fire attacks at the other end. Then came an uncharacteristic error in defence, which allowed the Burkinabe to take the lead in the 59th minute through Zaniou Sanou, capitalising on a mistake by Rwanda’s skipper Faustin Usengimana.

But eight minutes later the venue erupted into an ear-deafening roar as Tibingana Mwesigye equalised with a rocket-like long-range shot. But then, up popped Kabore with the winner to ensure a triumph for Portuguese coach Rui Manuel Vieria and his charges. The Burkinabe had finished above Rwanda in the group standings on goal difference only after beating Egypt 4-0, but they produced enough evidence of their qualities on route to the final of the eight-team tournament to justify their title.

Rwanda were left smarting over the missed opportunity with their French coach Richard Tardy making it plainly clear they needed to learn from the final. “We played the game before entering the pitch. There was a lot of pressure on the players and massive expectations, which might have affected them,” said Tardy. “Rwandans are disappointed with the result, but it’s a satisfaction because we played a final for the first time and we’re going to the World Cup.”

A quartet of tickets booked
Indeed both finalists will feel good about the performance and the condition of their youth football teams. The growing number of competitive sides across the continent could be seen in this year’s U-17 tournament, which was considered particularly open given the absence of perennial challengers like Ghana and Nigeria. And with the four teams having already qualified for the U-17 World Cup, the knockout rounds allowed the quartet to begin to think about the level of performance they will have to deliver to make an impact in Mexico.

The Ivorians were perhaps the slicker of the losing semi-finalists, but they failed to find the net in the semi-final against Rwanda, and they were beaten by a second half Mico goal. “It was the worst game for us and a bad day,” said Ivorian coach Alain Gouamene, himself a continental championship winner almost two decades ago, of the loss to the hosts. “It’s sad that our bad day came at this stage. We should have had more concentration and maintained good organisation before that goal. But these are young players and young boys who have a long way to go.”

Consolation for the junior Elephants was that Guy-Stephane Bedi finished as the tournament’s co-top scorer with four goals, alongside Congo’s Epako Stevy and Burkina Faso’s Sanou. Sanou’s side threatened repeatedly in the semi-final against Congo, but had to settle for a penalty shootout victory following a 1-1 draw. Falling out at the first hurdle were Egypt, Mali and Senegal, as well as the defending champions Gambia, who had high hopes of back-to-back successes but were eliminated without making much impact.

With Nigeria and Ghana having won the U-17 World Cup five times previously between them, expectations are high that one of the four African qualifiers can play long into the Mexican tournament. The event begins on 18 June and continues until the final on 10 July.