Half the field at the upcoming African U-17 Championships in Rwanda, which starts on Saturday, will go on to play at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Mexico this summer. Being within touching distance of such high stakes means that every game at the tournament will take place in a virtual cup final atmosphere.

The top two teams in each of the opening round groups at the eight-team tournament are guaranteed progress to the tournament in Mexico in June and July. All but one of the participating countries have qualified for a FIFA tournament before, save for the home nation who are hosting an African youth championship for a second time in two years.

Rwanda proved an able host at the 2009 African U-20 Championship, but their side managed only four points from three group games and, as a result, failed to advance to the semi-finals. Now they have hopes of a better performance at under-17 level where Frenchman Richard Tardy has been preparing the side for possible glory.

For all of the eight teams at the tournament, prospects of qualifying for Mexico have been made psychologically easier by the fact neither Ghana nor Nigeria, who between them have won five previous U-17 World Cups, managed to qualify this time round. Nigeria, who were runners-up at the last finals on home soil two years ago, suffered a shock loss to Congo in the first round of the preliminaries while Ghana, who won the event in 1991 and 1995, went out to Senegal in the last qualifying round.

Group A: Host Wasps hoping 
Rwanda’s Amavubi (The Wasps) will open the tournament at the Amahoro National Stadium against Burkina Faso, hoping an inexperienced team will find courage and fortitude from the support of the home crowd. Captain Emery Bayisenga has said his team are feeling no pressure and have enjoyed the build-up to the opening game of the tournament and relish the prospect of participation. As hosts, Rwanda did not have to go through the qualifying campaign, so they will be short of competitive practice, but they did host a regional mini-tournament in the last month to hone their skills.

Of course we want to win the tournament, but our priority is to qualify for the World Cup.

Egypt assistant Taher Abdelhamid

Burkina Faso are coached by the Portuguese Rui Manuel Vieria, who has described his charges as “highly motivated for the championship." The side spent several weeks in a training camp on the French-controlled island of Reunion in November and have the confidence of knowing the previous generation were third at the 2009 African U-17 Championships in Algeria.

Egypt meet Senegal in the second game in Group A on the opening day with the North Africans already making clear their intention. “Of course we want to win the tournament, but our priority is to qualify for the World Cup which means reaching the semi-finals,” assistant coach Taher Abdelhamid told reporters on arrival in Kigali. Senegal’s Les Lionceaux (Lion Cubs) are coached by Boucounta Cisse and are playing in the continental U-17 championship for the first time after they eliminated Ghana on penalties in the last preliminary round. The squad draws heavily from the Aspire Academy recently set up in Dakar and also other centres of excellence like the Diambars Academy and the Academy Mawade Wade. Cisse has also called-up promising starlet Youssou Gueye, who is on the books of French Ligue 1 club Toulouse.

Group B: Gambia eager to repeat
Defending African champions Gambia will open against upstarts Congo at the Umuganda Stadium in Gisenyi on Sunday, the second day of the tournament. Lamin Sambou’s 18-man squad is dominated by players from league champions Ports Authority and second division side Brikama United, and they have prepared for the trip to Rwanda by holding a training camp in Egypt. Augustine Badjan, who plays junior club soccer in the United Sates, is the lone foreign-based player in the squad.

Congo overcame Nigeria and Gabon to reach the finals and have been preparing in Kenya since 27 December. Eddie Hudanski, who led the country to the U-20 World Cup in Canada in 2007, is in charge, but he has to do without two key players as Noel Moukouka and Thorey Farel Mbemba are both injured. “It’s a real pity because they were two players certain to be in the starting line-up. But you have to accept that is part of the game,” said the coach.

Mali were the first of the visiting sides to arrive in Kigali to prepare for the finals, 10 days ahead of their opening game against Côte d’Ivoire. Mali’s hopes have been placed in young coach Nouhoum Diane, whose reputation was greatly enhanced by the manner in which his charges saw off Cameroon in the qualifiers. The Ivorians have looked to Europe to find young talent to reinforce their side, coached by Alain Gouamene. The former goalkeeper was the hero when the Elephants were winners of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations title in 1992, the only major continental success for Ivorian football.