The eight teams to compete in the U-20 CAF Africa Cup of Nations are set, and remarkably neither Ghana nor Nigeria will be present in Zambia next February, where the top four sides will qualify for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017.
The Ghanaians were felled in a tight tie by Senegal, while Nigeria were toppled in dramatic fashion by Sudan, who have never reached the world finals and are now dreaming of a breakthrough.
The Sudanese went through the first two rounds of qualifying for the continental finals without any trouble as Kenya were disqualified and Malawi withdrew from the competition. But with just two matches between them and Zambia, even the most fervent supporters could never have expected them to knock off the Flying Eagles, especially after they lost the home leg in Omdurman 2-1.
But in the return leg in Lagos, the lure of history drove the visitors to come from behind twice and take a 3-2 lead, which was enough to go through on away goals. However Walaadihh Musa, who had scored the go-ahead goal, was sent off and Nigeria equalised just after the hour mark to again reverse the tie. The Sudanese players held on against the home team, and somehow found the fairytale ending as Halid Abdamuleem scored with seven minutes to go to earn a shock 5-5 aggregate score and book Sudan's place in the U-20 CAF finals.
If Nigeria top the African list of the most appearances at the U-20 World Cup with 11, Ghana are the most successful African side, having won the competition in 2009 and finished runners-up in 1993 as well as in 2001. They also have a third place (2013) and fourth place (1997) finish to their name. But when the best teams gather in South Korea next year, the Black Satellites will be missing after a 3-2 aggregate defeat to Senegal, who finished fourth at the last global event.
Although Senegal won the home leg 3-1 to claim the driving seat, their coach Joseph Koto, who himself is a former international and was in charge of the side when they made the final of the African U-20 championship in 2015, warned his players ahead of the return leg that they had not yet achieved anything. “We have to approach the game as if the score is 0-0. And then we have to try to get a result to make sure of going through.”
Although his goal was not achieved completely as Charles Boateng scored the winning goal for the home side after a defensive blunder, Senegal still managed to book their place in the continental competition.
Fresh faces shine
Guinea reached their first continental finals since 1999 as they beat Gambia 2-1 in Conakry to register an aggregate victory by the same score. Not surprisingly, coach Mandjou Diallo was elated with his team's performance. “I asked them to show the will and commitment to make the dream happen, and I am pleased that they managed just that. They will now go down in history. We can first enjoy this victory, but then we must start preparing for the finals in Zambia.”
Although not having as long a wait as Guinea, Cameroon have also had to sit idly at home for the last two tournaments after being eliminated in qualifying. Not so this time around as they advanced 3-1 on aggregate, despite having lost their return leg in Tunis against Libya 1-0.
The generation of Patrick Mboma won the title in 1995 for Cameroon and Cyprian Ashu Bessong believes he has built a team around players like captain Samuel Oum Gouet, Martin Hongla Yma II and Eric Mbu Ayuck who are capable of repeating that success.
Mali advanced 2-0 on aggregate after beating Burkina Faso by that score in Bamako, with Sekou Koita and Siaka Bagayoko scoring the all-important goals. The west Africans, who finished third at the last World Cup, had many of the players in the team who lost the final of the U-17 World Cup to Nigeria in 2015. Captain Abdoul Dante, who also skippered the U-17 side in Chile said that their winning formula was their solidarity. “Now we are targeting the African Cup and World Cup. Our predecessors have already written a story, we want to go beyond that.”
The biggest aggregate victories of the round belonged to South Africa and Egypt, who both managed to qualify for the finals with 5-0 aggregate wins. South Africa, who had done most of the hard work with a 2-0 win in Lesotho in the first leg added a 3-0 victory at home, while Egypt trounced Angola 4-0 in Luanda, after having won the first match by a solitary goal.