With Europe and Asia having already taken centre stage, the spotlight falls on Africa this month, where the brightest U-20 teams on the continent are converging in Benin for the 14th African Youth Championship. At stake are qualification places for the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005 and the Stade de l'Amitié in Cotonou is already gearing up for the opening games on January 15. The Ivory Coast and Mali will get the action underway, before an intriguing encounter pits the hosts against their fearsome neighbours from Nigeria.
Group A: All signposts point west
Composed entirely of teams from the west of Africa, Group A features hot favourites Nigeria. The Flying Eagles are coached by Samson Siasia, and the legend from the 1990s is pretty unambiguous about his side's goal in this competition. "Winning is our objective and, given the quality of this squad, that's well within our reach," he said. The Nigerians arrived in Benin on 12 January boasting exciting left-winger Taye Taiwo in their ranks, and the youngster will no doubt be playing with extra confidence after just recently signing with French giants Olympique de Marseille.
For their part, Benin are determined to shine in this the first tournament of note to be held on their soil. The Squirrels may have qualified automatically as hosts, but their French coach Serge Devèze kept them busy throughout 2004 with a series of shrewdly-planned friendlies in France and Tunisia. Their preparations came to an end in Togo on 9 January, when they held Lomé side Agaza to a goalless draw, and team captain Osséni Bachirou is sounding confident: "While we were warming up for this competition in France, there was a great feeling of togetherness among everyone. We grew close and there's a real spirit of friendship in the group. Our preparations have gone well and we promise something special for 29 January," he said, referring to the night of the final.
Another team exuding confidence are the Ivory Coast's Baby Elephants, ahead of their upcoming encounter with Mali in the inaugural match. Just before making their way to Cotonou, manager Koné Tiegbê insisted that his young charges were more than ready. "Our strength is our cohesion," he said categorically. "The team is the only star." Indeed, the continental trophy almost feels like an afterthought to a side whose stated objective is the FIFA World Youth Championship title itself.
And despite the cancellation of their scheduled friendlies in North Africa, the 20-strong Ivory Coast squad have been training intensively just outside Abidjan. They include six professionals in their party, not least emerging talent Bamba Souleymane of Paris Saint-Germain, who should join up with his team-mates before the first game.
Group B: Morocco and Egypt favourites
Few would disagree that Morocco, winners in 1997, and current titleholders Egypt start as Group B favourites. But both sides should be wary of Angola and Lesotho, who proved more than capable of causing an upset in the qualifying phase. For the Junior Lions though, there is the added motivation of erasing the memory of first-round elimination in Burkina Faso two years ago.
Morocco are another side who can realistically harbour dreams of doing well at this year's FIFA World Youth Championship. Perhaps they even have the talent to go further than their counterparts did at Malaysia 1997, where they succumbed to Ireland after reaching the last 16.
There is quality all the way through the Moroccan squad, but one player to look out for in particular is Karim Azizou. A team-mate of senior international Marouane Chamakh at French club Girondins de Bordeaux, Azizou is considered one of the rising stars in the Bordeaux reserves and represented France more than 50 times before being given permission to play for his native country - which, unfortunately for him, came too late to take part in last summer's Olympic Games.
Angola and Lesotho, who come head-to-head in Cotonou on 19 January, both prepared for this tournament at the COSAFA Cup in South Africa between 27 November and 4 December last year. Angola enjoyed a run through to the semi-finals and fared considerably better than reigning champions Lesotho, who crashed out at the group stage. The Secretary of the Lesotho Football Association refuses to read too much into that performance, however. "It was a warm-up event, so the results are fairly meaningless. And I think some of the players had their minds elsewhere. Benin, for example!"
Winners of the 2001 edition, this year marks the return of Angola to serious competition in Africa. But they could hardly have asked for a tougher first opponent than Egypt, and will be well aware of how the Egyptians overcome a daunting 2-0 first-leg deficit in their qualification decider with Zambia. The Junior Pharaohs promptly triumphed 3-0 in the return fixture, earning themselves the right to be here with the rest of the continent's young football elite.