It might be almost a year ago since Brazil used Soweto’s Dobsonville Stadium as a training venue for the FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa, but the eight teams participating in the upcoming African Youth Championships will be hoping there might still be a little of their magic around to inspire a new generation. The recently renovated stadium, which is also the home of South African Premier League club Moroka Swallows, will host all but two of the 16 matches at the two-week event, which gets underway on Sunday and will culminate in the final on 1 May.
South Africa have stepped in as replacement hosts for Libya, whose civil conflict led to the change one month ago. The switch in venue has also allowed the host country the potential of backdoor qualification to the FIFA U-20 World Cup in July and August as the four semi-finalists will go to the tournament in Colombia.
South Africa were eliminated in the preliminaries but now replace the Libyans in Group A and will kick off the tournament against Mali on Sunday. Known as the Amajita, they also share the group with Egypt and tiny neighbours Lesotho, who have embarrassed the South Africans in three different competitions at U-20 level in the last six months.
Group B features some of the continent’s heavyweights, all coming from west Africa with strong pedigrees at junior level. Record-holding five-time winners Nigeria are paired with defending champions Ghana and former winners Cameroon. Gambia, who have been consistently competitive at junior events in recent years, are also back with a talented squad.
Big names and players to watch
There is no past form to anoint any side as favourites for the crown, but the reputations carried by Nigeria and Ghana will make them the most watched. Ghana’s U-20 side won both the last African Youth Championship and FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2009, leaving this generation of Black Satellites a hard task to live up to. Nigeria dominated the event in the 1980s but have only won the continental U-20 title once in the last ten tournaments. That was in 2005 when the generation led by John Obi Mikel dominated proceedings. Of the other competitors, Egypt have three past titles to their name and Cameroon have won once.
Musa Ahmed was the top scorer in the Nigeria Premier League last year and is now at Dutch club VVV Venlo. He has already been capped at senior level, as is the case with defender Terna Suswan. Ghana were unable to get Jordan Ayew released for the tournament but have a sparkling striker in Kwame Amponsah-Karikari, who is based in Sweden. Egypt’s squad includes several rising stars from the country’s domestic league, including Al Masry goalkeeper Ahmed El Shenawy and striker Mohamed Salah from Arab Contractors. Cameroon have picked Barcelona junior Armand Ella Ken in their 23-man squad.
Lesotho are seeking to emulate a feat achieved by Rwanda at the U-17s earlier this year by qualifying for their first-ever FIFA tournament. The hosts will also be hoping to figure in the reckoning in front of their own supporters. “My players are committed to playing for their country. They have done well in our preparations and showed character. We are ready for this tournament,” South Africa coach Maqsood Chenia said recently.
African Youth Championship South Africa 2011
All matches will be in Johannesburg.