African football has long had a reputation for excellence at junior level, but it remains an anomaly that no nation from the continent has won ever been crowned world champions.

The likes of Ghana and Nigeria have certainly come close over the years only to fall at the final hurdle, but now the baton will pass to the latest crop of African hopefuls as the final eight contenders begin the final phase of qualification for the this year's FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Congo at the weekend.

The central African country will host the CAF African Youth Championship in Brazzaville, on a newly laid artificial turf donated by FIFA, and in Pointe Noire, with the top four finishers going on to represent their continent in Canada's global showpiece in June and July. The field for this year's tournament features just three nations who have previously won the African Youth Championship, led by defending champions Nigeria. The Flying Eagles are five-times previous winners, although their success in 2005 came after a 16-year hiatus.

Cameroon and Egypt have also won the title before and represented Africa at FIFA U-20 World Cups, but there could well be a new name on the trophy come the final on 3 February, particularly as Cameroon, Egypt and Nigeria have all been drawn in the same opening round group.

Hosts Congo will have the advantage of home support but must be considered outsiders. They did not participate in the qualifying rounds, after all, and although they did undergo extensive training in Morocco and South Africa, their 18-man squad is exclusively home based, made up mostly of players attached to the national academy, the Centre National de Formation de Football.

The Congolese are coached by Eddy Hudanski and their prospects will come under close scrutiny in the opening game against Côte d'Ivoire this Saturday. The Ivorians themselves have high hopes, particularly as their current U-20 generation has already tasted success at U-17 level two years ago.

Burkinabe dreams
Group A, to be hosted in the capital Brazzaville, also features Burkina Faso and Gambia, who were African U-17 champions in 2005. The tiny west African nation continue to harbour serious hopes for this generation of youngsters and their confidence was justified on Monday when, during a preparatory tour of South Africa, Gambia's Young Scorpions inflicted a 3-0 defeat on the home country's U-20 side.

Burkina Faso's 'Etalons junior' will include two of Africa's brightest young European-based talents: Alain Traore of Auxerre in France and the Italian-based Salif Dianda. Their coach, Sidiki Diarra, was previously of the national side and his squad features two other players playing their club football in Italy, Bassouale Yabre of Juventus and Drissa Dabre.

The competition in Group B looks set to be fierce, with Cameroon, Egypt, Nigeria all pitted against each other along with the unpredictable Zambia. The matches will be played in the coastal town of Pointe Noire, dominated by the nearby oil industry.

Nigeria may suffer for a level of preparation considerably below that of their rivals, while Cameroon - coached by Aboubakar Souleymanou - should be boosted by the inclusion of Sochaux defender Iroumne Ndjam in their squad. They are also hopeful of convincing English Premier League club Arsenal to agree to the release of Alexandre Song, the younger brother of the Indomitable Lions' long-serving captain, Rigobert Song.

Cameroon's first opponenets are Egypt, coached by former international great Ismail Youssef, who has taken his side through a rigorous preparation programme with a recent Maghreb tournament and matches against teams from Cameroon, Congo and Ghana. Zambia, meanwhile, have battled to find the finance for decent preparations and have been restricted to warm-up games against clubs returning to pre-season training ahead of the start of the new league season starting up. Coach George Lwandamina has said that he expects "stiff opposition and a physical approach" from their group opponents, and all will be revealed when the competition kicks off this weekend.