With four spots at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013 at stake, there is plenty for the eight participants at the upcoming 2013 CAF U-20 Championship to dream about. Beginning on Saturday and running for two weeks until 30 March, the 16 matches will be played in Oran and Ain Temouchent, with the 40,000-seater Stade Ahmed Zabana in Oran hosting the final.
Group A: Tough challenge for hosts
Algeria are making their first appearance at the competition since it changed from a two-legged knock-out event to a hosted tournament with a group stage. Their coach, Frenchman Jean Marc Nobilo, has selected a mixture of foreign and locally-based players, with 13 of the final squad coming from the Algeria Football Association (FAF) academy. Having only once before - in 1979 in Japan - participated on the global stage, Algeria have put their faith in the youth football expert, and he travelled throughout the country looking at hundreds of players before settling on his 21-man squad. "I trust the players I have selected. I feel that the team is ready for this championship. Everything is clear, the goal is to finish first or second in Group A," he said.
Challenging the hosts will be Ghana, who went out in the group stage at the last tournament in South Africa in 2011 after winning the FIFA U-20 World Cup two years before – becoming the first African nation to do so. Coach Sellas Tetteh, who guided the team to victory on both the continental and world stage in 2009, has returned to the team and taken them to a European training camp, where they played a number of friendly matches, including a morale-boosting 1-1 draw with the Barcelona B side in their final game before the start of the tournament. Tetteh, who returned to Ghana after a stint with the Rwanda senior side, has gone with a predominantly home-based squad, with defender Baba Mensah and midfielders Clifford Aboagye and Frank Sarfo-Gyamfi being the only foreign-based players in the Black Satellites squad. Ghana, who are three-times champions, will, however, be without regular captain Frank Acheampong, who was not released by his Belgium club Anderlecht.
Also struggling to secure the release of some of their players are Egypt, who finished third two years ago. Striker Ahmed Hassan, known as Koka, has become a regular for his Portuguese side Rio Ave, so an agreement was reached where he will be available for part of the event. The final team in Group A, Benin, showed their pedigree by knocking out Senegal and Côte d'Ivoire en route to the finals. Their only other appearance at the continental stage was in 2005, when they finished third as hosts.
Group B: Defending champions favourites
Six-time continental champions Nigeria are the overwhelming favourites to book a place in the semi-finals. The Flying Eagles' coach John Obuh has a large pool of talented players to call upon to defend the title they won over Cameroon two years ago, when Obuh was also in charge of the side. The coach has picked a number of players who were in his squad in 2011, as well as in the U-17 team that finished second in the FIFA World Cup in 2009. He said that even though the results in friendly matches - including a 2-1 defeat against an Esperance side in Tunisia - had not been what he expected, he was satisfied with their preparations. "The performance of the team has reassured us we will be the team to beat in Algeria. I believe in this team. We have worked very hard and we will continue to work even harder to ensure the best for Nigeria,” he said.
Competing against the Flying Eagles for a semi-final place will be Mali, who are making their ninth appearance at the finals, missing out recently only in 2007. They have gone through to the semi-finals three times and have twice qualified for the World Cup. They beat Rwanda and Zambia to qualify for Algeria, and coach Moussa Keita has called up four French-based players, as well as FC Torino's Boubakary Diarra. Also in Group B is Gabon in only their second appearance on the continental stage, having last played in 2003, when they finished fifth. Their defender Rodrigue Bilong is the youngest player in the tournament at just 15 years old.
Competition rookies, Congo DR, caused a sensation when they trounced 2011 finalists Cameroon 4-1 in the return leg of their second round qualifier to advance to the finals 4-3 on aggregate. Their preparations for the finals have, however, not been smooth as a planned training camp in Morocco had to be cancelled for administrative reasons. Coach Baudoin Lofombo, who won last year's Kinshasa League title with AS Rojolu, has called up eight foreign-based players, including a pair of promising Nantes players: Aristote Ndongala and Anthony Walongwa.