It is not often that all semi-finalists in a continental championship say they have achieved their goal – irrespective of the outcome of their final match. But such is the lure of the FIFA U-17 World Cup that the four teams that emerged from the group phase of the CAF African U-17 Championships all went home saying: “A job well-done.”
For Mali it was a job probably more than well-done as the west Africans won their first U-17 title at their second attempt in a final, having lost to Egypt in 1997. For South Africa, beaten 2-0 in Sunday's final, Guinea and U-17 FIFA World Cup holders Nigeria meanwhile, there is the prize of qualifying for the Chile 2015.
Eaglets hit the clouds
Like his counterparts on the three other semi-finalists, the coach of the Mali Eaglets, Baye Ba, admitted that qualifying for the World Cup was the main goal, though he admitted that having made it to the championship game, the team had been determined to ensure a first-ever continental title (at any level) for the west African country. "We prepared the way we did in other games without putting pressure on the players. But obviously our goal was to take the cup home to all the people of Mali who were looking forward to us winning," Ba said after Siaka Bagayoko and Aly Malle's second half goals gave the team victory against a South African team that was also looking for a first U-17 title.
In the play-off for third place, Nigeria were beaten 3-1 by Guinea, who matched their previous best-performance at the competition. In captain Mousa Soumah and Fode Camara the Guineans had two of the best defenders in the competition, with Soumah making much use of his attacking abilities, which he used to put Nigerian defenders under tremendous pressure. Although Nigerian coach Emmanuel Amuneke could not give the Golden Eaglets their third title, he will go to Chile full of confidence as he has a number of incredibly gifted players with top-scorer Victor Osimhen and Manchester City target Kelechi Nwakali grabbing most of the headlines. Other stand-out players for the Nigerians were Ebere Osinachi, Usman Abass and 15-year-old Samuel Chukwueze.
South Africa stun Golden Eaglets
In the first semi-final it was the son of former Bafana Bafana striker Patrick Mayo who scored the all-important goal as *Amajimbos *stunned the favourites Nigeria. Khanyisa Mayo found the back of the net midway through the first half with a well-taken shot from just within the area. In the second half the Nigerians pressed hard for an equaliser and were twice denied by the woodwork and by a number of excellent saves from South African goalkeeper Mondli Mpoto.
“Playing in the final was a cherry on top for us, as our slogan coming to this tournament was ‘Road to Chile’ - a goal we accomplished with flying colours. But it would have been nice to go all the way,” South African coach Molefi Ntseki said, adding that South Africa's “footballing future is looking really wonderful.”
Mali advanced to the final by beating Guinea 2-1 in their semi-final, with Malle also grabbing one of the goals, while the other was scored by Sekou Koita, who was the youngest player in the Mali side and one of the youngest at the tournament.
Defending champions knocked out
The two finalists had already met in the group stage with South Africa having to dig deep to find two late goals for a 2-2 draw. The two sides then advanced to the semi-finals at the expense of the defending continental champions Côte d'Ivoire, who drew 2-2 with South Africa in their opening Group B game, then beat Cameroon 2-1. They went into their final match against Mali knowing that they would have to win if South Africa beat Cameroon, but it was not to be as Boubacar Traore scored his third goal of the group stage to give Mali a 1-0 win.
In Group A, which like the other group played all their matches in Niger's capital Niamey, Nigeria were surprisingly held to a 1-1 draw against Guinea in their second match and had to beat Zambia in their final game to be assured of a place in the knock-out stage. Nwakali grabbed one, while Osimhen scored a brace to give the Golden Eaglets a 3-1 victory. The hosts, Niger, ensured their campaign ended on a high note as Issoufou Boubacar and Ismael Rabiou Lara saw them beat Guinea 2-1 in a match that however made no difference to the final standings in the group.