CASABLANCA – For the eight teams involved in the Africa U-17 Championships, which begins this weekend in Morocco and concludes on 27 April, there is plenty at stake.
Not only will the winner be crowned the African champion, but the four semi-finalists will qualify for the showpiece event of U-17 football: the FIFA U-17 World Cup United Arab Emirates 2013.
The 10th African U-17 championships will be held in the cities of Casablanca and Marrakech, with the 67,000-seater Stade Mohamed V in Casablanca hosting Group A – made up of the hosts, as well as Tunisia, Gabon and Botswana - plus a semi-final.
The somewhat smaller Stade de Marrakech (45,000), hosts Nigeria, Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire and Congo in Group B, as well as a semi-final, the play-off for third place and the final. FIFA.com looks ahead to the competition.
African giants aim to return to winning ways
Not too long ago, Ghana and Nigeria not only dominated the African U-17 scene, they were also heavyweights on the global scene, winning five titles between them and finishing runners-up a further five times.
The only country to match them was Brazil, whose record of three wins, two second places and a third and fourth place sandwiches the South American side between the Golden Eaglets (three wins and three second places) and Ghana (two wins, two second places and a third and fourth place).
But of late, the two West African rivals have found the going much tougher and neither side managed to qualify for the last two finals of the African championships, though Nigeria entered the 2009 edition as hosts.
Disappointingly for them, the draw in Egypt pitted them not only against each other but with the Congolese and Ivorians, who finished third and fourth respectively at the 2011 championships in Rwanda two years ago.
Black Starlets' coach Paa Kwesi Fabin has called up a squad of 23 home-based players and embarked on a training camp in Italy ahead of traveling to Morocco.
A 6-2 victory against the reserve side of Serie B club Novara, suggests that the side is well prepared to take on the tasks awaiting them.
The Nigerians too, have reason to be optimistic, as the Nigerian Football Federation set up a training camp at Qatar's Aspire academy.
The team played two friendly matches during their time in the country which will be hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup and scored a convincing 7-1 victory against the Aspire U-18 side before beating Al Sadd, for whom former Spanish international Raul Gonzalez plays.
Coach Manu Garba said that the game against the two-time Asian champions was the best he had seen his team play. "We have prepared well for the forthcoming competition. Our goals are clear, we want to qualify for the FIFA U-17 World Cup as African champions and then we will return to Aspire to prepare for the World Cup," he said confidently.
Congo and Côte d'Ivoire were two of Africa's representatives at the last FIFA U-17 World Cup and both managed to escape the group phase.
The Ivorians, for whom Golden Boot winner Souleymane Coulibaly scored an astonishing nine goals in four matches, were knocked out 3-2 by France in the Round of 16, while Congo lost their match at the same stage against eventual runners-up Uruguay 2-1.
North African rivalry resumed
The hosts Morocco, who with Gabon are making their first-ever appearance at the finals of the African U-17 championships, have called up a squad including several players who play for the youth teams of some of the biggest European clubs, such as goalkeeper Anwar Bourmila, who plays for Inter Milan, Borussia Dortmund defender Mohamed El Bouazzati and striker Zakaria El Azzouzi, who plays his club football for Ajax Amsterdam. Morocco are expecting their main rivals to be fellow North Africans Tunisia, who have twice qualified for the world stage (1993 and 2007).