By Jay Mwamba
Ireland’s Under-20 soccer side has been drawn with Mexico, Australia and Saudi Arabia in Group C of the FIFA World Youth Cup scheduled for April 3 -24 in Nigeria. The group will be based in the populous West African state’s second-largest city of Ibadan in the southwest.
This will be the Republic’s fourth appearance in the biennial World championship for players 20 years old and under and they should travel to Nigeria ranked among the favorites after the recent success of Irish youth sides in international tournaments.
Ireland are the European Under-18 defending champions, and produced the biggest surprise of the 1997 World Youth Cup finals in Malaysia, placing third after losing by 1-0 to eventual winners Argentina.
One of the stars of that squad, which was coached by former Shelbourne player and coach Brian Kerr, was Blackburn Rovers striker Damien Duff, who has since been capped for the senior team by Mick McCarthy.
Ireland will open their Nigeria ’99 campaign against Mexico on April 4. They then play Saudi Arabia on April 7 before winding up their first-round schedule against Australia on April 10.
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In the other pairings for Nigeria ’99, made in the capital Abuja by FIFA President Sepp Blatter last Friday night, the United States were drawn in Group E, to be based in the northern city of Kano, with England, Cameroon and Japan.
Hosts Nigeria face Costa Rica, Germany and Paraguay in Group A, in the old capital, Lagos, while cup holders Argentina will tackle Croatia, Ghana and Kazakhstan in Group B in Kaduna.
Group D, in Enugu, features 1997 losing finalists Uruguay, who succumbed, 1-0, to the Argentines, Mali, Korea and Portugal.
Brazil will headline Group F, whose other members are debutantes Zambia, Honduras and Spain.
Speaking before the draw, Blatter put the issue of Nigeria hosting the championships beyond doubt and announced that the participants had been instructed to field their best players in the tournament.
This follows misgivings about Nigeria’s ability to host a successful tournament amid European concerns about the country’s political and social unrest.