According to the draw made in Abu Dhabi last week, the Irish youngsters kick-off against Saudi Arabia on March 27, and meet Ivory Coast three days later, before concluding their first round schedule against Mexico on April 2.
The United States, perennial participants at youth level, were pitted against Paraguay, South Korea and Germany in the Abu Dhabi-based Group F.
Ireland will play all their group matches in the 24-nation tournament, FIFA’s second largest competition after the World Cup, at the Sheikh Khalifah Stadium in the city of Al Ahin.
Then coached by Kerr, who was recently promoted to replace Mick McCarthy as coach of the senior squad, Ireland booked their place in the finals by finishing fourth at the European Under-19 Championship in Norway last July.
The strife-torn West African nation of Ivory Coast aside, Group E is an eerie repeat of the first round opposition faced by Kerr’s charges in their last appearance in the finals four years ago in Nigeria. On that occasion, Ireland succumbed 1-0 to Mexico in their opener, beat Saudi Arabia 2-0 and crushed Australia 4-0. They went on to lose 5-3 on penalties to Nigeria.
This will be the Republic’s fifth trip to the biennial championship, which has served as a proving ground for stars such as Diego Maradona, Luis Figo, Thierry Henry and Ireland’s own Damien Duff and Robbie Keane.
They missed out on the 2001 finals won and hosted by Argentina, but had recorded their best performance prior to Nigeria ’99 — a tournament dominated by Spain — in Malaysia in 1997 where they finished third. In that tournament, which also marked Kerr’s debut on the big stage, the Irish lads rebounded from a 2-1 defeat by Ghana in their first match to edge the United States 2-1 and tie China 1-1 in group play. They squeaked past Morocco 2-1 on Duff’s golden goal in extra time, then knocked off Spain 1-0 in the quarterfinals thanks to a Trevor Molloy strike.
Eventual cup winners Argentina halted the Irish run in the semis, via a 1-0 scoreline. In the third-place playoff, goals by Desmond Baker and Duff atoned for the earlier loss to Ghana in a 2-1 result.
Ireland’s previous appearances at the World Youth Championship, which have been held every two years since 1977, were in Portugal (1991) and the then Soviet Union (1985).
The rest of the UAE ’03 first round draw is: Group A — Burkina Faso, Panama, Slovakia, United Arab Emirates; Group B — Argentina, Mali, Spain, Uzbekistan; Group C — Australia, Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic; and
Group D — Colombia, Egypt, England, Japan.
The tournament runs from March 26 to April 16.