when the U-17 World Cup kicks off on Saturday with hosts Nigeria among the favourites to win the tournament.
Oct 22, 2009 12:50:31 PM
Africa will be represented by a record five teams at the 2009 FIFA Under-17 World Cup, which kicks off on Saturday with hosts and defending champions Nigeria, Gambia and Burkina Faso expected to be the standard-bearers for the continent.
Africa boasts a fine record at this level of world football with Nigeria winning the competition thrice, Ghana were champions in 1991, while the likes of Burkina Faso and Guinea have also reached the latter stages.
Nigeria's Golden Eaglets won their third tournament in Korea two years ago, and now playing at home, a lot is expected of them. But first they have to be able to handle the pressure of playing in front of their own crowd and also go past a first round group widely dubbed "Group of Death", which has Germany, Argentina and Honduras.
Build-up to this tournament though has been chaotic for the hosts. Coach John Obuh is the third man to take charge of the team after Alphonsus Dike failed to take the team to the African Junior Championship and the performance of former international skipper Henry Nwosu was also found unsatisfactory.
Less than three months to the World Cup, as many as 15 players were dropped after a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) test showed they were above the age allowed for the competition, meaning Obuh had to start almost from scratch to raise another team.
The Eaglets embarked on playing tours in Gambia and Ghana before they rounded up their preparations with a training stint in Qatar.
Heartland winger Stanley Okoro will carry on his slim shoulders the high expectations of an entire country, at a time when the fans have been far from impressed with the recent showings of the full international team as well as the team in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Egypt.
Okoro's trusted left foot has produced goals and assists for both club and country that he has now been nicknamed "Little Messi" after the Argentine superstar.
The team's attack also parades several fine prospects like Terry Envoh from Mighty Jets of Jos and Lanre Kayode, who is with the Red Bull Academy in Ghana. Kayode was a last-minute inclusion after he showed he knows his way to goal in a handful of warm-up matches.
Nigeria open their campaign on Saturday against Germany.
"We are ready for the World Cup, and on Saturday, Germany will fall," boasted Obuh.
Two-time African champions Gambia and Burkina Faso are also tipped to do well at this championship.
The Young Scorpions won the continental trophy on home soil in 2005, and in Algeria earlier this year, they again prevailed. Coach Tariq Saigy’s young charges won all the games en route to their second African crown.
Players to watch are striker Ebrima Bojang, who netted five times in Algeria, and Saihou Gassama, who takes charge of affairs in midfield.
The Gambians, who created a major upset at the 2005 World Cup by beating eventual finalists Brazil 3-1 in a group game, have the talent to again excel, but have to first get past the likes of the Netherlands and Colombia in the first round.
They will be desparate to avenge a 2-0 loss they suffered at the hands of the Dutch four years ago.
The Young Stallions of Burkina Faso finished third at the African Junior Championship and were also third at the 2001 World Cup in Trinidad and Tobago after they lost by a lone goal to Nigeria in the semi-final.
They accounted for Ghana in the qualifiers for this year's African Junior Championship.
Brazilian coach Roberto Danton has since been fired but will line up a proven scorer in Jerome Ouiya, who netted a hat-trick in a 5-0 thrashing of Zimbabwe at the African Junior tournament.
Ouiya's goals should help them go beyond a group that has Costa Rica, Turkey and New Zealand.
Algeria and Malawi are the other African teams at Nigeria 2009. They will both be making their debut at the world stage.
Algeria, hosts and beaten finalists at the African Junior Championship, face a very daunting task against the likes of Italy, South Korea and Uruguay in Group F, while Malawi are not expected to emerge from a group that includes USA and Spain.
Samm Audu, Goal.com