All eyes are currently on west Africa in terms of women’s youth football on the continent as the region swept the three available places at the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup. Gambia were the surprise success story of the campaign,

and the Girl Scorpions will be debutants in Azerbaijan later this year alongside powerhouses Nigeria and Ghana.

Usually ahead of the continental curve in women’s football at all levels, Nigeria and Ghana also reached the finals in 2008 and 2010, the only two previous versions of the tournament. Gambia had not entered a team in qualifying before, so their win over Tunisia was particularly notable.

Big two prove a point

Long the standard-bearers of women’s football in Africa, Nigeria carry that distinction at the U-17 level as well. Not only have the Flamingoes reached the only two previous World Cups, but they are the only African team to make the knockout rounds of the finals once there, which they did at Trinidad & Tobago 2010 when they went out to eventual champions Korea Republic 6-5 after extra time in a thrilling back-and-forth quarter-final. Given their pedigree, neither Nigeria’s 5-0 aggregate win over Kenya in the first round, or their 7-1 triumph over Zambia in two legs in the decisive tie, were much of a shock.

“It wasn’t a surprise that we won by such wide margins because we worked hard for the results,” said Nigeria coach Peter Dedevbo after the 5-0 second leg win, which saw a brace from Chidinma Edeji as well as a second goal in the tie each from Patience Okaeme and Halimatu Ayinde. The no-nonsense boss admitted to being “elated” with the achievement and he also expressed his ambitions: “We are already thinking about World Cup preparations and building a team that will surpass the quarter-final from two years ago.”

Ghana have won a match at each of the last two FIFA U-17 Women's World Cups, so they were also anxious to brush past their continental rivals en route to the larger stage, and the Black Maidens cruised past perennial challengers Cameroon 5-0 aggregate. Then they held their nerve in Johannesburg, claiming a scoreless draw against 2010 qualifiers South Africa in the opening leg of the final round. Buoyed by that away result, Ghana coach Dramani Mas-ud Didi had his side itching with momentum for the return, and they pounded the team that he called “a force in women’s football” by the score of 5-1.

The result was all the sweeter given that the Maidens went behind nervously in the opening minutes to Mosili Makhoali’s goal. However, Alberta Ahialey equalised almost immediately and then completed her hat-trick with a quick double late in the first half. Captain Priscilla Okyere added a brace of her own in the second period, including a long-range exclamation point in the later stages. South Africa coach Gregory Mashilo was impressed by the performance. “Ghana came at us very strongly,” he said before lamenting his team’s reaction to the early goal. “We took our foot off the pedal and allowed them to dictate terms.”

Girl Scorpions sting Tunisians

The Gambian success story got off to a good start in January when they won the first leg of their first tie against Sierra Leone 3-0, but a 3-1 reversal a fortnight later at Makeni in the away leg brought some questioners. However, in the final round as hosts of Tunisia at the Box Bar Stadium in Brikama, they had the best of the chances in the first leg, but it wasn’t until the introduction of Fatou Darboe that the team really came together.

It was Darboe’s cross that led to a penalty near the hour mark, and although Adama Tamba put the kick wide, Darboe completed the roll of heroine deep into second-half injury time with a dramatic winner.

Some sloppy defending from the exhausted Tunisians led to the vital breakthrough, but afterwards Gambia coach Buba Jallow praised his side’s commitment to the cause after playing four qualifiers under three months. “We came back, trained, and proved ourselves ready for the match, which was a promise made from the girls,” he said proudly. Tunisian coach Rebailli Salah promised a more even match in the return at La Soukra in Tunis, but their defence was again a weak link as they surrendered a pair to go out a 3-1 aggregate loser. The coach of the North Africans praised the fitness and awareness of the happy qualifiers, who will join Nigeria, Ghana and 13 other teams at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, which takes place in Azerbaijan from 22 September to 13 October.