Mali retain their crown to lead African challenge

  • Mali successfully defend their African U-17 title

  • The Junior Eagles beat Ghana 1-0 in the final

  • Mali, Ghana, Guinea and Niger will represent Africa at the FIFA U-17 World Cup India 2017

In the absence of two-time reigning world champions Nigeria, Mali backed up their status as runners-up at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Chile 2015 and defending continental champions by retaining their title at the 2017 CAF U-17 Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon.

The Junior Eagles beat Ghana in the final, with Guinea completing the podium after defeating Niger in the match for third place. The four teams will now have the honour of flying the flag for Africa at the FIFA U-17 World Cup India 2017 in October.

The champions Mali grew in strength as the tournament went on. Held to a goalless draw by Tanzania in their opening match in Group B, the Junior Eagles scored an important 2-1 win over Niger in their second outing before moving through the gears to defeat Angola 6-1 in their final group match. Next up for them was a repeat of their 2015 semi-final against Guinea. And just as they did on that occasion, the Malians came out smiling, thanks in no small part to a superb performance from their goalkeeper, Youssouf Koita.

After keeping a clean sheet in normal time, he pulled out all the stops in the resulting penalty shootout, saving three of Guinea’s first four spot-kicks and looking on as the other one struck the crossbar. The final against Ghana was also decided from the spot, with Mamadou Samake reacting fastest to tuck the ball away after his 22nd-minute penalty had been saved. The only goal of the game, it allowed the Junior Eagles to become the first side ever to retain the African U-17 title.

The qualifiers Absent from the 2015 competition, two-time U-17 World Cup winners Ghana came off second best in the final but can be rightly pleased with their efforts in finishing runners-up. Samuel Fabian’s charges impressed in the group phase, scoring nine goals and conceding none, and then held their nerve in the semis to beat Niger on penalties. Like Le Mena, Guinea also lost out on penalties in the last four, to eventual champions Mali, but bounced back to win the match for third place 3-1 and complete the top three for the second African finals running.

Objectives in India: “To win the World Cup and play the type of football for which Ghana has become known.” Ghana coach Samuel Fabian

“Our main objective is to qualify for the quarter-finals first of all and to push on from there.”* Guinea coach Souleymane Camara *

“To do the continent justice, because we will be representing Africa and then Mali. We’ve reached the World Cup final before and we want to improve on that.” Mali coach Jonas Kokou Komla

“We’re waiting to see who we’re drawn against before we say anything. We’re sure, though, that we can do well, because Nigerien football is on the up and up.” Niger coach Ismaila Tiemogo

What else we learned *Hosts fail to profit:* Named tournament hosts in place of Madagascar, Gabon failed to make the most of their second chance and the vociferous support of their fans. In losing all three of their group matches, the Gabonese conceded 11 goals and scored just the one.

Lions tamed: Cameroon, the 2003 African champions in the age category, did not fare much better. Beaten 4-0 by Ghana in their first match and held 1-1 by Guinea in their second, the Indomitable Lions missed out on the trip to India after an ultimately worthless 1-0 win over Gabon in their final game.

Group standings: Group A: Ghana (7 points), Guinea (5), Cameroon (4), Gabon (0) Group B: Mali (7 points), Niger (4), Tanzania (4), Angola (1)

Players to watch Though they still have plenty to prove, a clutch of players took the opportunity to start building reputations for themselves. Among them was Ghana captain Eric Ayiah, who was the tournament’s second-top scorer with five goals, despite failing to find the target in the final. His understanding with Ibrahim Sulley could prove productive in India. Standing out for Mali were goalkeeper Youssouf Koita, who had a big part to play in their title win, while Mohammed Camara excelled in midfield with his leadership qualities and skills.

Guinea’s Djibril Toure caught the eye with his tactical appreciation and vision, and topped the tournament scoring charts with six goals overall. His partnership with playmaker Aguibou Camara allowed the Syli to control proceedings in midfield for large parts of their games. Finally, Niger boast promising talent at both ends of the pitch, with Abdoul Karim Tinni providing a potent goal threat and Khaled Lawali Ibrahim proving a polished performer between the posts.