The final four qualifiers for the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015 will be known by the middle of the month as the 20th CAF African U-20 championship kicks off on Sunday in Senegal. Escaping one of the two groups result in not only a place in the semi-finals of the competition, but also a spot in the world finals, which begin at the end of May.
There is little to suggest that the two countries that have dominated African youth football – Nigeria and Ghana – are not the pre-tournament favourites in the competition, which will be played in the two Atlantic cities of M'Bour and the capital, Dakar. Between them, the two west African nations have won the competition nine times, with Nigeria being on a run of five consecutive semi-final appearances.
Although the Flying Eagles are without their two Manchester City starlets, Chidiebere Nwakali and Kelechi Iheanacho, as well as Genk's Wilfried Ndidi, who have not been released for the tournament, it will be a difficult ask of the hosts, Congo and Côte d'Ivoire, to try and deny them a spot in the semi-finals. "We have a very formidable team even without them. That does not mean they won't be part of the team if we qualify for the World Cup.” explained assistant coach Nduka Ugbade when asked about the missing players.
Ugbade, who captained the side when they won their first global competition in Japan at the U-17 World Cup in 1985 and was in the side that lost in the final of the U-20 World Cup four years later, added: “We are very prepared and, just like in Niger during the CAF U-17 Championship, our primary mission in Senegal is to pick a World Cup ticket. Then we shall concentrate on the AYC trophy."
For the hosts, it is the first time-ever that they are appearing on the continental stage, while the Ivorians have plenty of experience counting in their favour – having qualified for the World Cup finals five times already. Congo, African champions In 2007, are making a welcome return to the competition, having missed out on the last three finals.
Top of the class
In Group B, all eyes will be on Ghana. Only South American heavyweights Argentina and Brazil have more semi-final appearances than the Black Satellites at the U-20 World Cup finals and after the disappointment of having been excluded from the African U-17 Championship for fielding an over-aged player, the west Africans will be determined to redeem themselves.
The 2009 world champions have been tasked by their federation to win a fourth African U-20 title and officials have put their money were their mouth is, assigning Black Stars coach Avram Grant, as well as two analysts and the physical trainer from the senior side, to Sellas Tetteh's technical team. Ghana will have a formidable roster, with captain Owusu Bempah being one of the players who could stand-out. Spain-based Clifford Aboagye, who won the Bronze Ball as the third-best player at the U-20 World Cup in Turkey two years ago, will be playing in his second African finals.
The South African side will attempt to emulate the success their U-17 counterparts had in Niger earlier this month, where the team finished second. *Amajita *coach Thabo Senong, who arrived in Senegal well before their opening match against Ghana, said that his side was ready for the tournament. “When you have desire to do well, have a good spirit and you are united in a common cause, results will take care of themselves,” he said.
Unlike South Africa, who have only once made it to the semi-finals, Mali have some experience at this level and finished fourth in the last two editions. They also finished third at the World Cup finals in 1999.
Zambia have also appeared on the global stage and in 2007 were beaten in the round of the last 16 by African rivals Nigeria. The *Junior Chipolopolo *have three players in their squad who were also in the team at the African Cup of Nations finals in Equatorial Guinea, including captain Lubambo Musonda, who plays his club football in Armenia and 17-year-old forward Patrick Ngoma.