Africa roars into Round of 16

ROB BRODIE

, Last Updated: 9:41 AM ET

The post-mortems about the state of Canadian soccer are in full flight one more time.

Such are the exercises that almost automatically follow the kind of unexpected, quick exit the home side suffered at this FIFA U-20 World Cup.

But there are no such questions being asked about African soccer today.

For only the second time -- and the first outside that continent -- four African sides will play on beyond the group stage in this event. And for a couple of them, it's unprecedented success.

Congo and Gambia are first-timers at the competition, but both impressively won their way into the Round of 16 (the former at Canada's expense). And Zambia, which has only one previous U-20 World Cup to speak of (in 1999), confounded the experts by placing second in Group B.

Only Nigeria, the runners-up in Group F behind Japan, has much of a pedigree in this tournament. The Flying Eagles made it all the way to the final back in 1999, a feat they duplicated two years ago in the Netherlands, when Morocco placed fourth.

With Nigeria and Zambia paired up in a Round of 16 match Thursday at Frank Clair Stadium, Africa is guaranteed some representation in the quarter-finals. But one gets the sense that all four have arrived at this point with no thought of stopping now.

"For us, this is a very big achievement in Africa," Zambia defender Goodson Kachinga said yesterday. "Football is improving in Africa now. The quality of the players is going up."

Added teammate Dennis Banda: "Now, all the African teams are looking hungry to get the Cup."

Given this tournament's recent history, you'd think it's only a matter of time before an African team hoists the championship trophy. Ghana has also been a two-time finalist. Africa supplied two of the final four both last year and in 2001. Three of its four entries made the quarter-finals in 1999 in Nigeria, the only other time they all survived the group stage.

This time around?

"I believe that one of us will win the trophy," Nigeria forward Brown Ideye said without hesitation.

His coach, Isah Ladam Bosso, has a grander thought.

"One of the African group will be in the final," he said. "If not Africa vs. Africa."

Argentina's Cup?

Defending champion Argentina is now the oddsmakers' choice to win its sixth U-20 World Cup title. British bookmaker William Hill lists Argentina as the 5-2 favourite among the final 16, with Mexico close behind at 5-2. Followed by Spain, 6-1; Brazil, 8-1; the U.S., 10-1; Nigeria and Chile, 12-1, and Portugal, 14-1. The longest shots left: Zambia and Austria, 50-1, and Gambia, 66-1. Hill had listed Brazil as the favourite before the tournament.

Familiar foes

What a week it's going to be for supporters of Argentina and Mexico. Their sides meet Thursday in the semi-finals of Copa America, which is being played in Venezuela. And if form holds, their U-20 teams will line up against each other in what would be the glamour game of the quarter-final round Sunday night at Frank Clair Stadium.


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