With Nigeria being the most successful team in the history of the FIFA U-17 World Cup, it would not be strange to expect the Golden Eaglets to be the overwhelming favorites for the CAF U-17 Championship, which kick off in Niger's capital Niamey on Sunday.
However, Nigeria have won the global event more often than their continental one, including the last one, so they head into the tournament knowing they will have to fight to live up to the expectation that they will claim one of the four spots available for the World Cup in Chile later this year.
Eaglets set to fly
If Nigeria's own strength at the U-17 age level is not enough, the four-time world champions were also handed an excellent draw that sees them competing with the hosts Niger, Zambia and Guinea in Group A. The Nigerians, who have won the African championship twice, surprisingly lost the away leg of their third round qualifier in Gabon 2-1, but then had no problems in overturning the deficit with an emphatic 5-0 victory in Calabar.
The Golden Eaglets have a highly experienced coach in Emmanuel Amunike, who played in the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™, as well as the Confederations Cup and the Olympics, winning gold in 1996. He has stated his confidence in his team. “We are here for business and by the grace of God, it shall go well for us here in Niamey,” he said shortly after the teams' arrival.
Having scored 11 goals in the four matches they played to qualify for the finals, Amunike knows he can count on goal-getters like Ebere Osinachi and Ndu Iheakam, while captain Kelechi Nwakali, who is on the books of English Premier League side Manchester City, is being tipped as one of the potential stars of the tournament.
Niger, whom the Golden Eaglets will be meeting in the opening game in the Stade General Seyni Kountche on Sunday, have once before played in the competition, but were disqualified for fielding an ineligible player after qualifying for the semi-finals. Zambia though are genuine debutantes, but coach Chris Kaunda believes they are the real deal, telling reporters: “I can assure you we have a team that can do the honors. We are ready.”
The fourth team in the group, Guinea, have thrice qualified for the World Cup and finished fourth in the inaugural competition in 1985. Their best place at the African championships is third, in 1995.
Holders looking strong
In Group B, which will also be played in Niamey in the Stade Municipal, title holders Côte d'Ivoire appear to be the side to beat. The west Africans, who advanced to the quarter-finals at the last U-17 World Cup at UAE 2013, had a comfortable passage into the finals, beating Libya 4-0 in the first leg of the second round before the north Africans withdrew. They then beat Angola 4-1 on aggregate in the third round to book their place in Niger. Also in the group the perennial under-achievers of African youth football, South Africa, are looking to ensure their first-ever place in the the global competition. The Amajimbos have only twice made it to the finals of the CAF competition, finishing fourth in 2005 and failing to escape the group phase two years later.
Coach Molefi Ntseki, whose side had to dig deep to qualify with a 2-2 draw in Cairo against Egypt, has been able to fine-tune his side in a number of friendly matches in the run-up to the competition. One of the players who impressed was striker Luvuyo Mkatshana, who has shown a knack for appearing on the score sheet, and the Wits player scored in South Africa's 1-0 victory against Niger during the week. "We believe we are a good side. We believe we have what it takes to go far in this tournament. After the friendly against Niger we know what to expect in the tournament and it is up to us to qualify for Chile later this year."
Standing in South Africa's and Côte d'Ivoire's way of qualifying are Cameroon and Mali, both of whom have plenty of experience playing at this level. Les Lionceaux won the competition in 2003 and have a fourth-place finish, while Mali made it through to the semi-finals four times and have two quarter-final appearances from the World Cup to their name.
Group A: Niger, Nigeria, Guinea, Zambia
Group B: South Africa, Côte d'Ivoire, Mali, Cameroon