Can't ignore Congo

DEREK VAN DIEST -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:06 AM ET

The days are long gone when African teams would be overlooked at tournaments such as the FIFA Under-20 World Cup.

Despite the fact Congo has never previously competed at this event, as African champions they won't be taken lightly.

"We are not happy just to be here. When you come to a tournament like this, you play to win," said Congo's French head coach Eddie Hudanski. "We know that we're the smallest team here at this World Cup and we're here for the first time. But we are going to try and learn quickly and play to win."

Congo arrived in Edmonton earlier this week and are trying to get familiar with their new surroundings.

They'll play all three of their group games at Commonwealth Stadium, starting against Austria on Monday - the first of nine games taking place in Edmonton.

"It's very difficult to qualify out of Africa," Hudanski said. "Congo is a small country. But we've been working with these players for the past two years in order to be able to come to this tournament. This team is the culmination of two years of work."

As one of four African teams competing in the tournament, Congo needed to just get into the semifinals of their continental championships in order to qualify for the World Cup.

As host of the African Youth Championships, Congo had a free pass into the final eight-team tournament while the rest of the countries had to play in regional competitions.

Congo defeated the Ivory Coast, lost to Gambia, then needed penalty shots to get past Burkina Faso to clinch a spot in the semifinal.

Having booked a spot at the Under-20 World Cup, Congo went on to defeat Zambia in the semifinal, then got past heavily favoured Nigeria in the final to win their first African championship.

"We have a very technical team," Hudanski said. "We are also very solid as a group."

In Edmonton, Congo will also play Chile on Thursday and round out the group phase of the tournament by facing Canada on Sunday, July 8th. That game could very well determine which of the two teams move on to the next round of the tournament.

"I know all three teams," Hudanski said.

"I have seen Austria, I have seen Chile and I have seen Canada. We've done our homework on these teams.

"We know Canada and Austria both have big, strong teams, but I think we have more technique than they do. We are more similar to Chile that play a very technical game. They have a lot of skill."

African teams have traditionally fared well in youth championships.

Nigeria lost to Argentina in the final of the 2005 event in the Netherlands. They also made it to the final of the tournament in 1989. Ghana lost in the final in 1993 then again in 2001.

Congo has only competed in three world championships since the founding of their national soccer association in 1962. They qualified for the Under-17 championships in 1985, then again in 1991.

"We have a lot of support back home," Hudanski said. "The people are very, very proud of this team.

"This gives them something else to think about because Congo is a country that has been at war."


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