Under-20 World Cup: Introducing Africa’s teams

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Four of the continent’s sides are primed to contest the biennial world championship

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    U-20 World Cup 2019

    The 2019 Under-20 World Cup kicks off in Poland on Thursday, with four African sides set to compete in the 24-team tournament.

    The continent have a fine history in the age-grade competition, with Ghana having won the title—in memorable fashion—a decade ago.

    Nigeria have come close, as defeated finalists in 1989 and 2005, while Mali and Senegal both reached the semi-finals as recently as 2015.

    Could any of Africa’s four sides match the Black Satellites’ achievement of 2009?

    Here’s all you need to know about the continent’s contenders ahead of this year’s showpiece…

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    Nigeria

    How did they qualify? Fourth-placed finishers at the U-20 Afcon, Nigeria topped Group A, defeating both Burundi and Niger en route to the semis. However, this was where fortune deserted them, and they were defeated in back-to-back shootouts by Mali, in the semi, and then by South Africa in the third-placed playoff.

    Track record? Nigeria are regulars at the U-20 World Cup, and this is their 12th appearance at the tournament. They’ll be desperate to make amends for 2017, when they missed out, but do they have the quality to go one better than 1989 and 2005, when they were defeated finalists?

    Who’s in their group? Nigeria begin their group campaign with a fascinating encounter against Qatar in Tychy, before subsequent meetings with the United States and Ukraine. It’s a compelling group—a genuine clash of cultures—and the West Africans will fancy their chances of progress.

    Who are the key men? Wonderkid Tom Dele-Bashiru, who was born in Manchester, has got people talking ahead of the tournament, and it’ll be intriguing to see how he meshes with some of the home-based players in Paul Aigbogun’s squad. Defenders Ikouwem Utin and Valentine Ozornwafor have already been named in senior Super Eagles squads by Gernot Rohr.

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    Senegal

    How did they qualify? As runners-up in the U-20 Afcon earlier this year; Senegal topped Group B—the only team in the competition to win all three of their group-stage matches—and then defeated South Africa in the semi before falling—on penalties—to Mali in the final. Their 5-1 victory over Burkina Faso in the group stage was particularly impressive.

    Track record? One of the emerging forces in African youth tournaments, this is Senegal’s third consecutive showing at the competition. They finished fourth in 2015, and things could have been different in 2017 but for a narrow defeat against Mexico in the Round of 16.

    Who’s in their group? Senegal have been pitched in Group A, and will play their first two group games in Lublin before facing hosts Polance in Lodz in their final game. They begin their campaign against minnows Tahiti, before a showdown with Colombia on 26 May…a rematch of the senior Lions’ decisive final World Cup group game last summer.

    Who are the key men? Striking sensations Dia N’Diaye and Youssouph Badji will likely carry the Lions’ goalscoring threat in Poland. The former represents French side Metz, the latter, two years younger, is with Casa Sports in his homeland. Manchester City’s Alpha Diounkou is also in the squad.

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    South Africa

    How did they qualify? South Africa finished third in the U-20 Afcon, defeating Nigeria on penalties in the playoff after having been pipped by Senegal in the semis. They’d progressed to the knockouts after advancing through Group A ahead of hosts Niger and Burundi.

    Track record? The southern Africans are making their fourth appearance in the tournament, and will be desperate to improve on their 2017 showing, when they took just one point from their group games, and fell at the first hurdle. Their best performance came in 2009, when they reached the knockouts. Even this may be a stretch too far this time around.

    Who’s in their group? South Africa have been pitted in a testing Group F, and would do well to advance from a tricky first round draw. They meet Argentina in their opener in Tychy, before facing South Korea at the same ground three days later. They conclude their group-stage campaign against a Portugal side who were champions in 1989 and 1991.

    Who are the key men? Lyle Foster secured a move to AS Monaco earlier this year following a handful of fine showings with Orlando Pirates in his homeland. He’s already been capped by Bafana Bafana at senior level, and, 18 months ago, was named by The Guardian among the world’s 60 most promising players.

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    Mali

    How did they qualify? Like Senegal, they qualified from Group B at the U-20 Afcon, overcoming an opening loss at the hands of Senegal to defeat Burkina Faso and Ghana to qualify to the knockout stages. Mali ultimately went on to win the U-20 Afcon, by avenging their opening loss against Senegal with a 3-2 penalty shootout victory over their West African rivals in the final following a 1-1 draw.

    Track record? One of Africa’s more experienced teams at the U-20 showpiece, Mali have twice made the semi-finals (in 1999 and 2015) and twice finished with the bronze medal. Can they improve on that showing this term, their seventh appearance at the tournament?

    Who’s in their group? Mali have been pitted against France, their former colonisers, and their meeting on May 31 in Gdynia could be one of the matches of the group stage. They face Panama in their opener, before meeting Saudi Arabia three days later.

    Who are the key men? Stade Malien midfielder Mamadou Traore caught the eye during the U-20 Afcon in Niger, and could make an impact, but much of the focus will be on Red Bull Salzburg’s Sekou Koita. The 19-year-old has also been named in Mali’s preliminary squad for the upcoming Afcon in Egypt.