Four berths up for grabs in Africa
CAF U-20 Africa Cup of Nations about to kick off
Defending champions Zambia failed to qualify
Four tickets for Poland 2019 on the line
With four places at Poland 2019 up for grabs, the FIFA U-20 World Cup is tantalisingly close for the eight participating sides at the CAF U-20 Africa Cup of Nations.
The continental showdown takes place in Niger and will run from 2-17 February 2019.
FIFA.com takes a closer look at the tournament and the main contenders, which do not include Zambia, after the defending champions were surprisingly knocked out in the final qualifying round.
CAN U-20 in summary
Dates: from 2-17 February 2019
Location: Niger (Maradi and Niamey)
Participating teams: Group A: Niger, South Africa, Nigeria, Burundi Group B: Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana
Format: Two groups of four, with the top-two from each section qualifying for the semi-finals
At stake: The four semi-finalists will qualify for Poland 2019
The favourites Still to win a continental championship in this age category, Mali have the potential to finally join the ranks of the victorious. Mamoutou Kane's charges laid down a marker in the second and third qualifying rounds with aggregate victories over Tanzania (1-2, 4-1) and Cameroon (1-1, 3-0), despite the absence of several key players who had club duty in Europe.
However, for the continental final in Niger, Les Aiglons have at their disposal a similar squad to that which brought them glory at the U-17 CAN in 2017 and took them to the semi-finals of the FIFA U-17 World Cup that same year. They can also count on their forward and star man Lassana N’Diaye, currently on the books of CSKA Moscow. One player they will be without, however, is Monaco’s promising midfielder Abdou Salam Ag Jiddou.
Also firmly in the mix are Ghana. Runners-up to Mali two years ago at U-17 level, the Black Satellites will be keen to make amends this time out, especially after missing the last U-20 finals in Zambia. They can count on a full-strength squad too, including a clutch of talented youngsters who have collectively been trying their luck in Scandinavia.
There is also a strong case to be made for Nigeria. Seven titles and 14 podium finishes speak volumes of their consistency at this age level. They have plenty of quality in their current squad too, such as striker Yahaya Nazifi, as well as the vast experience of coach Paul Osahoun Aigbogun, who has plied his trade in Wales, the USA, South Africa and England.
Tournament regulars Senegal cannot be discounted either, after finishing runners-up in the last two editions of this championship. And while coach Youssouph Dabo remains cautious, insisting that “no two tournaments are the same, especially at youth level”, opponents will need to be on their game when facing the young Lions, who impressed in disposing of Egypt and Congo in the qualifying rounds.
Players to watch
Lassana N’Diaye (Mali/CSKA Moscow): adidas Silver Boot winner at India 2017, he is a natural left-footer and formidable in front of goal. He signed for the Moscow giants in 2018 and is considered one of Africa’s most promising young players.
Yahaya Nazifi (Nigeria/Sonderjyske): this complete forward has chosen Danish side Sonderjyske for his first taste of European football. Back in Nigeria, he is considered a rare jewel.
Khanya Leshabela (South Africa/Leicester City): the star man in the U-20 side, this midfielder has just been handed a new contract with Leicester City. The senior national team will be banking on him in the future, as will the U-20s in Niger.
Did you know?
Burundi have never qualified for a FIFA tournament but could finally put that right after eliminating defending champions Zambia in the surprise of the final qualifying round.
Niger’s key player is Salim Abdourahmane, who scored his country’s solitary goal at a FIFA competition, the U-17 World Cup India 2017.
Burkina Faso's last participation at a U-20 World Cup dates back to 2003.