On the 24th September the FIFA Under 20 World Cup kick off in Alexandria, Egypt. It’s only the third time the tournaments been hosted on African soil since its inauguration in 1977. For years the tournament has been, without question, the prime scouting event for European clubs wanting to run the rule over some of the most promising player in the world.
The tournaments record speaks for itself; in the past the Under 20 World Cup has seen the making of some of footballs most famous names. Two years after Tunisia 1977 a certain Diego Maradona dazzled crowds in Japan and lead a superb Argentine side – equipped with Golden Boot winner and modern day River Plate hero Ramon Diaz – to victory. The 1983 tournament saw the Dutch challenge lead by a young Marco Van Basten, but it was a surprisingly functional Brazilian side who took the spoils with the likes of Bebeto and Dunga. Legendary centre back Fernando Couto and midfielder Paulo Sousa helped Portugal to victory in 1989; Joao Pinto, Abel Xavier, Rui Costa and Luis Figo helped the Portuguese make it two in a row on home soil in 1991. A strong African contingent in Australia 1993 saw players like Rigobert Song, Marc-Vivien Foe and Sammy Kuffour catch the eye of European scouts, while Barcelona’s Seydou Keita was the man on everyone’s lips at Nigeria 1999. Finally, who can forget Lionel Messi’s stand out performances in Holland 2005 where he lead his country to victory, made a clean sweep of the individual honours and prompted an immediate promotion into the Barcelona first team by then coach Frank Rijkaard.
Brazil and Argentina have dominated every tournament since 2001, with the Argentines winning three of the last four. This year promises to be a different affair. The tournaments most successful side Argentina are absent after a horrible showing in CONMEBOL Under 20 tournament in Venezuela, this coupled the recent success achieved by both Nigeria and Ghana at Under 17 level has rightfully resulted in both African countries starting this years tournament with a quite belief that they both have the capabilities available to go all the way. There are five African sides participating in Egypt this year, only the European region has more participants with six. Hosts Egypt qualify automatically with the remaining four; Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa and Cameroon all qualifying through the African Youth Championship that was held in Rwanda earlier this year.
It’s the side that took the trophy in Rwanda earlier this year – Ghana – who go into Egypt 09′ as strong contenders for the Under 20 title. The Black Satellites are a well balanced and settled side, lead by the experienced and popular coach Sellas Tetteh. Defensively the side rely on the organisational skills of Panathinaikos’ defender Jonathan Mensah; a towering centre back with excellent positional skills and aerial ability. Mensah will be called upon to reel in both attack-minded full backs Daniel Opare and David Addy in the transition and ensure defensive partner Samuel Inkoom hasn’t gone walkies. The midfield will be controlled by Sampdoria’s Rabiu Mohammed; strong, tall and smart, the central midfielders occasional – but well timed – gallops forward will offer a different dimension to the Ghanaians attack. The creative reigns will be held by the “Ghanaian Giggs” Ishmael Yartey. Heavy billing for the nineteen year old, but after his excellent start to the season on loan at Beira-Mar (Ishmael is contracted to Benfica), scoring three goals in five games (starting only one of them), he may well live up to the hype. A quick and skilful winger with a keen eye for goal, he has the potential to make a massive impact on the tournament. Last, but most defiantly not least is the Ghanaian goal machine Ransford Osei. Currently on loan with FC Twente the Ghanaians target man is stronger, smarter and sharper than a year ago and considering he scored seven goals in five games in Rwanda, the prospect of him being any better should striker fear into the eyes of opposing defenders. Fantastic in the air, beautifully balanced and lethal in front of goal, Steve McClaren should be encouraged to sign the striker permanently before bigger European sides come sniffing. Other notable members of the Ghanaian side are; Daniel Opare, Abeiku Quansah, Sadick Adams and Agyemang Opoku. Despite being drawn in a tough group with Uzbekistan, England and Uruguay, most still expect the Black Stars to qualify… and then take on the big boys from South America in the second round.
Africa’s next best hope is Nigeria. The Super Eagles have had a difficult few months after a faltering performance in Rwanda where HSV striker Macauley Chrisantus (the star of the Under 17 World Cup) was distinctly off pace and some rather unimpressive displays from the side as a whole that left the Super Eagles stuttering to a third placed finish. Never-the-less this side should not be underestimated, the squad are the current Under 17 World Cup holders and with one of Africa’s finest young coaches in Samson Siasia at the helm anything is possible. The side will have to do without some key figures in injured striker Macauley Chrisantus, centre back Kingsley Udoh and 17 year old striker Ganiyu Oseni. Samson has called up Aberdeen winger and former England youth international Sone Aluko, Bayelsa United striker Stanley Ohawuchi and Kano Pillars midfielder Mo Shehu Shagari. Nigerian fans expect a good showing in Egypt and their hopes rest on the shoulders of youngster central midfielder Rabiu Ibrahim. Dubbed the new ‘Okocha’ by Nigerian journalists after his superb performances for Nigeria in the 2007 CAF Under 17 tournament in Togo and FIFA Under 17 World Cup in Korea; both of which Nigeria won. The sides number 10 is equipped with a low centre of gravity, combined with fantastic vision and a seemingly bottomless bag of tricks, he will be the creative heartbeat for the Nigerians. To compliment the adventurous Rabiu in midfield, Nigeria will deploy AS Monaco defensive midfielder Lukman Haruna to balance the side. Lukman’s role in the side is crucial; with midfielders Rabiu, Alfa and Ikande committed in attack it will be up to the tall central midfielder to delay the play during the transition from attack to defence and allow his fellow midfielders time to recover their shape behind the ball. At just 18 the commanding midfielder has already broken into the Monaco first team and his employers will no doubt be fending off interest from potential suitors around Europe after the tournament. The concern for Nigeria lies in their defence; the loss of Kingsley Udoh has not been addressed and Samson’s refusal to include centre back Alex Nkume in the squad has baffles many journalists in Nigeria. They have also been drawn in a difficult group alongside Fran Merida’s Spain, Venezuela and minnows Tahiti.
Defensive problems certainly don’t blight neighbouring county Cameroon. The Young Lions participation in the FIFA Under 20 World Cup marks a end to their ten year no-show in FIFA’s premier youth tournament. The man behind the resurgence in Cameroonian youth football is Alain Webo. A self-taught coach who has already tasted success in Cameroonian domestic football but will undoubtedly face his biggest test in Egypt. Cameroon’s strength is there defence and understanding to stick to a rigid defensive system. Goalkeeper and captain Francois Beyokol is already number one for club side Canon Yaounde and the athletic goalkeeper will be expected to control the defensive shape of the side. The side’s main outlet from defence will be from left back Charley Roussel Fomen who was signed by OM Marseille, after his impressive performances in Rwanda, as the long term replacement for Taye Taiwo. Despite being athletic and powerful in attack – ala Taye – its Charley’s recovery runs and defensive positioning that will be a cause for concern as the Young Lions prepare to face far stiffer opponents than they did in Rwanda. Cameroon’s attacking threat will be carried by PSG’s attacking midfielder Victor Cedric Nkoum and FC Basel front man Jacques Zoua Daogari. The latter being the most impressive of the two, Jacques, who struck four goals in five games during the African Youth Championships. Blessed with an explosive turn of pace, he will cause headaches for group opponents Korea, USA and Germany.
The two other African participants are hosts Egypt and South Africa. The advantage for the latter country is that they have been drawn in the competitions most open group alongside UAE, Honduras and Hungary. South Africa surprised even their own supporters with their performances in Rwanda, but many observers feel this tournament will be a step too far for the unbalanced South African’s. Despite having an array of interesting attacking options in Phumelele Bhengu, Dylon Classen and exciting Feyenoord striker Kermit Erasmus the side rely too heavily on centre back captain Ramahlwe Mphahlele to organise the defence strategy. They can be slow in transition and even if they qualify from Group F I cannot see them progressing any further than the Round of 16. As host country, Egypt will be under an enormous amount of pressure to qualify from the group stage; but with Paraguay, Italy and Trinidad and Tobago their opponents this hurdle will most likely prove too difficult to overcome. The Egyptians shining light is 20 year old Al-Ahly striker Mohamed Talaat who grabbed two goals in three game in Rwanda, despite there being a distinct lack of creativity in the players behind him.
Return to the title question; Can an African side win the World Cup? One of the biggest factors that will determine the answer to such question is the climate. Unlike South Africa 2010, where the tournament will be played during the milder months of June and July, the Under 20 tournament is being played in Egypt amid a scorching heat wave. Matches have been scheduled for 1500, 1745 and 2030 with the temperature falling from a sweltering 35 degrees in the afternoon to a bracing 24 degrees by nine at night. The heat will clearly benefit the South American and African countries whilst in turn pose a real problem for the side from Europe. Germany in particular face two energy sapping fixtures at three in the afternoon and then their final group game against Cameroon which is scheduled for 1745.
Much like the FIFA World Cup, an African side has never won the Under 20 World Cup. But there is real hope that on October the 16th, in Cairo, history will be made.