Qualifying for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2014 is set to move up a few gears over the next two-and-a-half weeks, with no fewer than four confederations about to stage their final preliminary competitions.
This frenzy of qualifying action will begin on Thursday in the Cayman Islands, where North, Central American and the Caribbean's finest will do battle in the CONCACAF finals, and will be swiftly followed by decisive matches in Africa, Oceania and South America.
In total, seven places are up for grabs across the confederations, with hopefuls in all four regions aiming to join China PR, Korea DPR, Korea Republic, England, Finland, France, Germany and hosts Canada in booking their place at the U-20 women’s showpiece.
Former winners look to shine
In South America, all ten of CONMEBOL’s member associations will be represented as the battle for the continent’s two spots at Canada 2014 takes place across two cities: Montevideo and Fray Bentos. The Uruguayan capital will host Group A, in which the hosts will go up against Colombia, Chile, Venezuela and holders Brazil, who are aiming to win the tournament for a sixth successive time.
While the Brazilians will naturally start as hot favourites to maintain their 100 per cent record of having qualified for every U-20 Women’s World Cup to date, the race to join them could be wide open. Colombia – who reached the final in 2010 – will fancy their chances of advancing from the section, as will Uruguay themselves.
Argentina, meanwhile – Brazil’s main traditional rivals in this competition – will be hoping to dominate Group B, in which Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay and Peru are their opponents. The top two qualify from each section, with the final four scrapping it out for two berths that will be decided on 26 January.
Only three teams have ever lifted the U-20 Women’s World Cup, and the CONCACAF Women's Under-20 Championship will see the tournament’s most successful team – three-time winners USA – put through their paces. George Town in the Cayman Islands will be the setting for this particular preliminary competition, with the US facing group matches against Costa Rica, Jamaica and Guatemala between 9 and 13 January.
Among the standout names in the American squad named by Michelle French is Lindsey Horan, who has already turned professional with Paris Saint-Germain, and young midfielder Andi Sullivan, who only recently celebrated her 18th birthday. And there is no mistaking their coach’s confidence.
"We have players with very unique qualities ranging from creative and effective finishers, to players who are threatening with their dynamic movement in the midfield, to players who are defensively strong and physical in one-on-one situations,” said French. “Our overall athleticism will be another strength."
With U-20 Women’s World Cup hosts Canada already guaranteed a spot at their own party, the confederation’s remaining hopefuls will be vying for three spots – offering an unprecedented opportunity to nations that have never before reached the global finals. Indeed, while USA will be expected to top Group A and Mexico – who have qualified for five out of six previous U-20 world finals - to dominate Group B, a place in the semi-finals will also be the target for the Cayman Islands, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.
All eyes on Nigeria, New Zealand
In Africa, where CAF have already held two rounds of qualifying, only the heavyweights remain. The two places on offer will be decided over the next couple of weeks, with Nigeria squaring up to South Africa and Ghana taking on Equatorial Guinea, in the final-round ties that will determine who qualifies for Canada 2014.
As Africa’s only ever-present at the six previous editions of the U-20 Women’s World Cup, Nigeria undoubtedly have history on their side. However, South Africa have impressed during qualifying and will, like Equatorial Guinea, have realistic hopes of reaching their first-ever world finals at this level.
New Zealand, meanwhile, will be the team to beat in Oceania. The Kiwis have won every edition of the OFC U-20 Women’s Championship since Australia’s departure to the Asian Football Confederation, and with this year’s tournament on home soil, will be confident of claiming their continent’s solitary spot at Canada 2014.