February 26, 1999

FIFA World Youth Championship: The big premiere

From 3 to 24 April 1999, the world's best junior players will battle it out for the twelfth time to see who will be World Youth Champions. The host country this year will be Nigeria, Africa's most populous land.

The title of "The big premiere" could perhaps be a little misleading; this is not the first time ever that the U-20 WYC has been staged in Africa. In fact the very first competition for this title was held in Tunisia in 1977. But this is certainly the first time that a FIFA competition has been hosted by a country in sub-Saharan Africa. And it is a first for Nigeria who are the hosts this time; they were originally scheduled to run the 1995 event, but medical considerations made it necessary to alter the venue that year, with Qatar springing in to fill the gap at short notice.

But at the second attempt everything will be in place: 24 teams from all over the world will compete in Nigeria from 3 to 24 April, playing a total of 52 matches to decide who will carry off the coveted WYC trophy for 1999. Back in 1995 it had been planned to use just four stadiums - in Lagos, Ibadan, Enugu and Kaduna - but this time there will six or even eight venues. This is a consequence of the fact that the number of teams in the final round was increased to 24 for the 1997 tournament in Malaysia, and so the number of stadiums had to be increased for scheduling reasons.

The title also contains a hint of adventure, on the part of the local organizing committee, who as yet have no experience of running a major event of this calibre with worldwide interest and importance. However, they have been very active and enthusiastic in their efforts to make sure things run smoothly. The state has recognized the significance of this WYC and has made funds available for bringing facilities in the stadiums up to the required level. Huge efforts have also been made to make sure that transport, accommodation, medical and telecommunication arrangements also meet international standards. The tournament is certainly providing a big challenge, and Nigeria is tackling it wholeheartedly.

On the sporting side, the host country must be counted among the favorites. Their best achievement so far was winning the Olympic Football tournament in 1996, but the "Super Eagles", as the national A team is called, have also performed well at continental level and on their appearances in the World Cup finals rounds in 1994 and 1998.

Yet in the U-20 category, no African team has ever made it right to the top. Nigeria reached the final in 1989 (losing to Portugal) and Ghana also took silver in 1993 (beaten by Brazil). But perhaps this will be the year in which the strength Africa has shown at the U-17 level will come through to the next stage up. Of the eight U-17 world championships held so far, African teams have won on four occasions: Nigeria in 1985 and 1993 and Ghana in 1991 and 1995.

Their dominance of this category is matched at the U-20 level by European (five titles) and South American teams (six). The countries which top the list are Brazil and Argentina with three wins each. Argentina, champions in 1995 in Qatar and 1997 in Malaysia will be going for a record of three titles in a row, a feat that no country has yet achieved.

TEXTAREA Brazil will be looking for revenge over their arch-rivals after their semifinal defeat in Malaysia, and Uruguay, who reached the final in 1997, must again be reckoned in with a good chance. The main obstacles to further South American success will come from Europe, in the form of 1981 champions Germany and double winners Portugal (1989 and 1991), as well as from Africa, as noted above.

The Asian teams will be hoping to improve on past performances, and this time their contingent includes a newcomer to the competition in the shape of Kazakhstan. Mexico could be a good outside bet, while the rest of the CONCACAF teams are not counted among the close favorites.

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