Africa's brightest talent is assembling in Rwanda ahead of the CAF African Youth Championship, a tournament that promises to once again unveil some of the continent's most promising young prospects.
The eight-team event, which kicks off on Sunday and is the first major tournament to be hosted by the small east African country, serves to determine the four African representatives who will compete at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Egypt later this year. The Egyptians are already guaranteed a spot as hosts of the global showpiece, which means that if they reach the semi-finals in Rwanda then a play-off will be required to determine which nation will take the final ticket.
All of African football's traditional powerhouses in youth football have qualified for this continental event, with Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria's Flying Eagles leading the list of favourites and Côte d'Ivoire and Egypt seen as possible spoilers. The African Youth Championship has always been a eagerly-awaited affair, not only by fans but also by a bevy of world-class clubs, who routinely send scouts in search of the latest emerging African star.
With the holders Congo having failed to qualify on this occasion, hosts Rwanda head Group A along with Cameroon, Ghana and Mali. Group B, meanwhile, looks especially imposing, composed as it is by Côte d'Ivoire, Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa. Five-time winners Nigeria have dominated past events and were disappointed to finish runners-up in 2007 after winning the previous edition, their fifth overall, in 2005.
I have a very solid team and with the full backing of our fans, I'm very confident about our chances of achieving our target.
Captain Lukman Haruna, who has already been capped at full international level by his country, says he is confident the Nigerians will reclaim the crown in Rwanda. "But our main objective is make sure we get a ticket to go to the World Cup in Egypt," said the Monaco midfielder. The Nigerian squad is made up of many of the players who won the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Korea in 2007 but coach Ladan Bosso has been forced to deal with a fair amount of domestic criticism over his selection. He does have a formidable squad, though, led by the Sporting Lisbon prodigy Rabiu Ibrahim and Hamburg striker Chrisantus Macauley, the top scorer at Korea 2007.
Côte d'Ivoire, meanwhile, are hoping to provide a shock or two. "We are aware that nothing is going to be easy with so many big teams," said their captain Zie Diabate. "But we are good players and we are mentally and physically prepared for them. I sincerely believe we can end higher than these teams." The hopes of the Elephanteaux rest heavily on the shoulders of ASEC Abidjan's Cyriac Gohi Bi, who made a strong impression in last year's CAF Champions League. He was also the top scorer in the Ivorian league last year.
Egypt and South Africa are largely unknown quantities but also possess genuine potential. The South Africans suffered a major setback, however, when several key players were not released by their clubs, including the Feyenoord striker Kermit Erasmus. Dede Ayew, who played for Ghana at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations last year, leads the U-20 side in their bid to usurp their Nigerian rivals, although the Ghana squad has been hit by the knee injury that ruled out Real Madrid wingback Daniel Opare.
Hosts Rwanda are coached by Tomislav Obradovic, who has set his team the goal of claiming a place in the semi-finals and, with it, their-first-ever spot at a FIFA tournament. "I have a very solid team and with the full backing of our fans, I'm very confident about our chances of achieving our target," he said. Rwanda is also a strong footballing nation capable of winning this tournament at home." There are four players in Rwanda's U-20 side who have played for the senior team, including Haruna Niyonzima, who competed in recent 2010 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying matches.
The tournament's opening game is to be staged at the Amahoro stadium in Kigali, where Rwanda will take on Mali, followed by Cameroon's Group A opener against Ghana. The Amahoro stadium's artificial playing surface was recently installed as part of FIFA's 'Win in Africa with Africa' programme.