There was unbridled joy in Africa when FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter announced the 19th edition of the FIFA World Cup would go to the Mother Continent's southern-most nation. Yet it was another footballing pathfinder that was the advocate of a FIFA competition first heading to the world’s second-biggest continent in 1977.
Harry Cavan, who fondly referred to Blatter as his “protégé”, was eager to develop youth football and afford non-European and South American countries the right to host tournaments. Therefore, he masterminded the inception of the FIFA World Youth Championship – now known as the FIFA U-20 World Cup – whose maiden instalment headed to Tunisia.
And the action didn’t disappoint Cavan or the local supporters. Contributing to the appeal was a series of upsets, and two of the biggest unfolded in the semi-finals, with Mexico and Soviet Union overcoming South American powerhouses Brazil and Uruguay respectively – both via nail-biting penalty shootouts – to set up an unlikely decider.
Over 22,000 turned up at the El Menzah in Rades, 35 years ago to this Tuesday, to witness what proved to be a fitting finale. After an action-packed but goalless first half, the net rippled three times within the space of ten minutes at the start of the second. Fernando Garduno fired Mexico ahead before right-back Vladimir Bessonov equalised, only for Agustin Manzo to restore El Tri’s lead. And 2-1 is how it appeared destined to finish until Bessonov once again abandoned his defensive duties to race forward and score a last-gasp leveller and ensure that, in what remains a unique statistic, every match in the knockout phase of a FIFA tournament was decided on penalties (although 16 teams took part, only the group winners advanced to the semi-finals).
Just before the referee’s final whistle had sounded, however, Soviet Union coach Serguel Massiaguine played his trump card. Yuri Sivuha, a penalty-saving specialist, was summoned from the bench to replace Aleksandre Novikov. The move had worked a treat in the last four, and it would do so once again, with the future Metalist Kharkiv great producing two brilliant saves to earn the Soviets a 9-8 success. It was the most dramatic of climaxes to what had been a thrilling tournament – one that had cemented the FIFA World Youth Championship’s place on the footballing map and proven Africa’s ability as a host continent.
Bessenov was duly named Tunisia 1977’s player of the tournament, while his team-mates Andrey Bal, Sergei Baltacha and Vagiz Khidiyatullin are among the innumerable graduates of the youth event to have gone on to participate in the FIFA World Cup. These graduates, along with youth football and Africa, owes a debt of gratitude to Cavan.