When Africa's eight best teams meet in Senegal to contest the CAF U-23 Africa Cup of Nations beginning this weekend, they will be playing for much more than continental bragging rights. On offer is a much bigger prize: three tickets to the Men's Olympic Football Tournament next summer in Rio de Janeiro.
The two finalists and the winner of the third place play-off match will represent the continent at next year's Olympic games, and one thing is for sure: Africa will not be sending a rookie to Rio as all eight teams participating in Senegal have already competed at the Olympics and therefore firmly know what is at stake.
Although Nigeria have been the dominant force in African youth football, it is Egypt who can claim the most number of appearances at the Olympics. The Pharaohs have played for Olympic gold 11 times with only a handful of countries around the world having reached the Olympics more often. The north Africans have been drawn into arguably the tougher qualifying group, which will play their matches in M'Bour. The Egyptians will face local rivals Algeria, Nigeria, as well as Mali, who are rapidly becoming one of the powerhouses of youth football, and who knocked out the title holders Gabon in qualifying.
Another Dream Team
Nigeria, who in 1996 became the first African country to win Olympic gold, have not had the smoothest of preparations with coach Samson Siasia having been unable to secure the release of all his foreign-based players. Not making the trip to Senegal is Manchester City sensation Kelechi Iheanacho, as well as Granada's Isaac Success. The latter's late withdrawal from the final squad has opened the door for Victor Osimhen, who secured the adidas Golden Boot at the recent FIFA U-17 World Cup with ten goals in seven matches, taking home the Golden Ball for good measure, as Nigeria successfully defended their title.
Siasia's own availability for the trip to Senegal was thrown in doubt shortly before the start of the tournament when his mother was kidnapped by armed bandits, and even though he has stated that he will coach the team, the situation is ongoing.
The Dream Team VI, as the team is called, connecting them to the Dream Team that won gold in Atlanta, also had to endure an unscheduled emergency stop in Accra en route to a training camp in Gambia. All of that notwithstanding, the west Africans will go into the two-week tournament as one of the favourites. It is a role that the players have taken on. Taiwo Awoniyi, who is one of three European-based players in the squad and scored both goals in his side's 2-1 victory against Congo DR in the final qualifying round, is confident the team can do well.
“It is all about hard work and it is work time," Awoniyi said. "Qualifying for the Rio Olympics is non-negotiable as we have no excuse to give Nigerians, that’s why we have to put in our best to get something out of Senegal.”
The Nigerians can expect some stiff opposition from Egypt, even if Hossam El-Badry is sweating over the availability of Al Ahly player Saleh Gomaa, who is carrying an injury. This has forced the coach to call up an extra player. “I took the necessary steps to make sure we have a good team,” he said.
South African coach Owen Da Gama, whose side will be facing Tunisia, Zambia and hosts Senegal in Group A, has received the full backing of the South African Premier League, who have cancelled all fixtures for the duration of the tournament to allow clubs to release players. He has called on his squad to follow the example set by Banyana Banyana, who have already qualified for the Olympic Women's tournament. “Should things go our way then the players will go down in history as the second South African team to have qualified for the Olympic Games," Da Gama said.
Zambian fans are hoping their side can gain some inspiration from the class of '88, when Kalusha Bwalya inspired the team to a famous 4-0 thrashing of Italy in Seoul. Fighton Simukonda has called up seven players who were involved in Chipolopolo's 3-0 aggregate victory in a FIFA World Cup™ qualifier earlier this month. Simukonda laughed off suggestions that his team was not strong enough to advance past the group stage. “By the time we get there, we will be 100 per cent. We are going to reach the semi-finals and no less.”