Saturday 25 February 2017, 10:24

Eight CAF hopefuls do battle for four berths

While the recent CAF Africa Cup of Nations, from which Cameroon emerged victorious, only offered one ticket to the upcoming FIFA Confederations Cup (to the winners), this year’s CAF U-20 Africa Cup of Nations, which starts on 26 February in Zambia, generously offers four berths to the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017. Consequently, the semi-finalists at the continental tournament will join the 16 teams that have already qualified for the global contest, which runs from 20 May to 11 June.

One team that will not be making the trip to Asia is Nigeria, who have appeared no fewer than 11 times at the U-20 World Cup and have won the U-20 Cup of Nations more than any other nation, but who were surprisingly eliminated by Sudan in the third qualifying round (2-1; 3-4). Ghana, the first African side to lift the U-20 World Cup in 2009, suffered the same fate at the hands of Senegal (1-3; 1-0). Without these two heavyweights, the identity of the winners of Zambia 2017 is difficult to ascertain.

Having lifted the trophy on four previous occasions, a record which places them second on the event’s all-time league table behind the Nigerians, Egypt will certainly be viewed as one of the favourites. Much like their senior colleagues, who recently reached the final in Gabon, the young Pharaohs appear to be back to their best, after failing to qualify for the last U-20 World Cup, at New Zealand 2015. Led by Karim Nedved, Ahmed Ramadan Beckham, and Khalil ‘Neymar’ Elnouby, Egypt laid down a marker in the final qualifying round, comfortably disposing of Angola (1-0; 4-0) over two legs.

In a tough-looking Group A, it will not all be plain sailing for Egypt, however, as teams such as Mali, whose squad includes numerous players who reached the final of the FIFA U-17 World Cup Chile 2015, will certainly not be there to make up the numbers. In particular, the two Red Bull Salzburg starlets, Amadou Haidara and Sekou Koita, should feature, as should Grenada forward Aly Malle and promising Standard Liege midfielder Moussa Djenepo, who was not part of the squad that travelled to Chile two years ago.

Another team in Group A that gained invaluable experience in Chile, even if they did not manage to advance past the group stage, is Guinea. Their coach, Mandjou Diallo, will be able to count on the likes of Alseny Soumah, Morlaye Sylla and Naby Bangoura, who all ply their trade for Portuguese outfit Arouca.

Les Aigles will kick off the tournament on 26 February at 13.00 (local time) against hosts Zambia, who last appeared on this stage ten years ago, at Canada 2007. The Junior Chipolopolo have a future star of their own, Patson Daka, who plays up front for Austrian side Liefering and will be keen to show home fans what he can do.

In Group B, meanwhile, Senegal, who reached the final last time around, will again set off on their perennial quest to brandish the continental trophy for the very first time. The Young Lions of Teranga have built a team around Mamadou Diarra, who stars for Boluspor in Turkey, and Ibrahima Ndiaye, who plays in Egypt for Wadi Degla.

Coach Joseph Koto has also called on the services of Auxerre’s Waly Diouf and Caen’s Dominique Minkilan, who did not take part in the qualifying campaign. “After we knocked out Tunisia and Ghana, much will be expected of Senegal at the Cup of Nations,” said Koto.

Sudanese surprise  Also drawn in Group B, and anxious to emulate their recently-victorious senior counterparts, Cameroon, who boast six players on the books of European or North American clubs, have their eyes on a memorable double, 22 years after winning their first U-20 title.

“Our morale is really high. We had the best possible preparation and we’re in great shape,” said Cameroon captain and midfielder, Samuel Oum Gouet. “The mentality of the whole squad is ideal. In fact, we’re not just a ‘group of players’, but a family, and we’re ready to go all the way in this competition.”

Making up the pool are South Africa and Sudan, who will both rely more on local players, an approach that will not necessarily work against them. While the South Africans made light work of Lesotho in the final qualifying round (3-0; 2-0), Sudan overcame the significant challenge of Nigeria, whose players had captured the U-17 World Cup in 2015. Halid Abdamuleem, who was outstanding in the return leg in Lagos, will be one to watch in Zambia.

Once the semi-finalists have been determined, the African quartet will know that an even greater challenge awaits them two months later at Korea Republic 2017, where they will likely have a significant role to play in proceedings.

The groups Group A: Zambia, Guinea, Egypt, Mali. Group B: Senegal, Sudan, Cameroon, South Africa.