African football will again be the focal point when the FIFA Under-17 World Cup kicks off on Saturday, with hosts Nigeria among the favourites to win the tournament.
Africa will be represented by five teams at the 2009 FIFA Under-17 World Cup, which gets underway 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, with Nigeria winning the competition three times, Ghana have been champions twice, and the likes of Burkina Faso and Guinea have also reached the later 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 they have to negotiate a first round pool widely dubbed the 'Group of Death'. Their opponents will be Germany, Argentina and Honduras.
The build-up to this tournament has been chaotic for the hosts. Coach John Obuh is the third man to take charge of the team in recent times. Alphonsus Dike failed to qualify them to the African Junior Championship and the performance of former international skipper Henry Nwosu was also found unsatisfactory.
Less than three months ago, as many of 15 players were dropped after a 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 tours of 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 squad sent to the U-20 World Cup in Egypt.
Okoro's trusted left foot has produced goals and assists for both club and country, and 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 side won all their 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 desperate 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, when they lost by a lone goal to Nigeria in the semi-final.
They also accounted for Ghana in the qualifiers for this year's African Junior Championship.
Brazilian coach Roberto Danton has since been fired but the team 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 debuts on 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. Meanwhile, Malawi are not expected to emerge from a group that includes USA and Spain.
Samm Audu, Goal.com