Nigeria confirmed their position at the top of the pile in continental youth football by extending their record run of African Youth Championship titles to six yesterday. The Flying Eagles overcame perennial rivals Cameroon 3-2 after extra time in a thrilling finale at the bi-annual tournament to win just their second title in 22 years.
The two finalists proceed to the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011 along with Egypt and Mali, who reached the semi-finals of the event hosted in Soweto, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Egypt, who meet Brazil in the opening match of the tournament which runs from 29 July to 20 August, grabbed third place by beating Mali 1-0 in their bronze medal play-off match, which was a curtain raiser to Sunday’s final at the Dobsonville Stadium.
Nigeria’s U-20 side boasted nine players from the squad that reached the final of the 2009 FIFA U-17 World Cup, a tournament they hosted and where they lost 1-0 to Switzerland in the final. Two years on, coach John Obuh moved up with the latest generation to ensure consistency and was again able to inspire success. But the Nigerians began the tournament with some controversy, as two squad members, whose ages were questioned, were withdrawn before the first match, reducing the squad size to 19.
Star player Ahmed Musa travelled for the opening game, a fortuitous win over reigning world champions Ghana, and then left for his Dutch club again and did not return to the tournament. Cameroon then beat Nigeria in their second group game but a 2-0 win over the Gambia in the last of their Group B matches made sure of the Eagles’ progress.
Nigeria’s poor finishing played a major part in their uninspiring first round performance but, once they had clinched their World Cup berth, the side turned it on with a 2-0 win over Mali in the last four and then exacted revenge over Cameroon in the deciding game. “It was a good win for us, especially against Cameroon, who are not an easy team. It has been years since we have beaten them,” said Obuh after his players lifted the trophy.
Cameroon posted comfortable wins in their first two matches at the tournament to quickly earn their trip to Colombia and they finished top of their group to establish themselves as the favourites for the title. Cameroon’s ‘Lions juniors’ have only once before been crowned African U-20 champions but this generation presented their best chance in years. However, they struggled in the semi-final against Egypt and only won through in a controversial penalty shootout where the Egyptian goalkeeper made two fine stops, only for the assistant referee to flag a retake because the goalie had allegedly moved off his line before the kick was taken.
In the final, Cameroon were 2-0 down with just minutes to go but launched a furious comeback that took the game into extra time, but they proved unable to sustain their momentum. “I got the impression the Nigerian players were just that little more determined than ours and more determined than when we met them in the first round,” said Cameroon coach Martin Mpile Ndtoungou. “We made a lot of mistakes but that does not take from the fact Nigeria were the best team.”
Egypt played some of the best football at the tournament, and a goal from Mohamed Hamdi saw them take the bronze medal over Mali. Egypt had secured their semi-final spot, plus qualification for Colombia, by beating the hosts in a winner-takes-all final group match after suffering a 1-0 defeat to Mali during the group phase, only to reverse the score line in the third place play-off.
Mali had seven players from French clubs in a star-studded squad and a veritable national institution in Cheick Fantamady Diallo as coach, and they quickly made clear their potential by hammering hosts South Africa 4-2 in the opening game of the tournament. Then they beat Egypt to book their World Cup trip and finished the group in top place. “The reason for our success was the way we worked and trained,” said captain Amara Konate. “We have been a real team, we communicate well on the pitch and we have a fighting spirit. The tournament started really well for us.”
Hosts South Africa disappointed in not making it to the final four but had only made it to the eight-team event through the back door. They had been eliminated in the opening qualifying round by Lesotho last August but then the 2010 FIFA World Cup hosts took over the tournament from war-torn Libya with just a fortnight’s notice and had a second bite. The Amajitas did gain a measure of revenge against Lesotho, who finished bottom of Group A with a single point, but failed to advance further than the first round.
The failure of defending world champions Ghana to win a single match was the major shock of the tournament. Two draws in Group B were not enough to give them any chance of going to Colombia to defend their title. “I can say the players were not good enough over the three games,” said Black Satellites coach Orlando Wellington. Gambia scored a single goal in the tournament, which was enough to earn a point against the Ghanaians.
Players to watch
With star player Ahmed Musa playing just a single game at the tournament, it was Uche Nwofor who took up the reigns and led his Nigerian team-mates to the title. His four goals, including a penalty in the final, saw him crowned the tournament's top scorer. Also impressive were captain Ramon Azeez, Olanrewaju Kayode and Spain-based Stanley Okoro.
The 18-year-old Cameroonian dangerman Edgar Sali was named player of the tournament while imposing goalkeeper Jean Efala came up with a buffet of heroic saves against Egypt in the semi-final and again against the Nigerians in the decider.
Egypt’s Mohamed Ibrahim showed a deft touch and fine vision in midfield but his temper let him down after the controversial penalty shootout loss to Cameroon. Striker Mohamed Hamdy caught the eye with his strength while goalkeeper Ahmed El Shenawy showed a maturity beyond his years.
Mali’s key players were the lanky striker Kalifa Coulibaly, who missed the semi-final defeat to Nigeria through suspension, and midfielder Cheick Mohamed Cherif Doumbia, better known as ‘Makoum’. South Africa’s captain Philani Khwela was rated as the best player of the first round but did not get to show his talent at the business end of the tournament.
4 - Uche Nwofor (Nigeria)
3 - Lucky Nguzana (South Africa)
2 - Franck Ohandza, Edgar Salli (Cameroon), Kwame Nsor (Ghana), Kalifa Coulibaly (Mali), Stanley Okoro (Nigeria)
Fair Play award
Ahmed El Shenaway (Egypt)