Ghana and Nigeria are favourites as the African Under-20 Championship kicks-off in Senegal on Sunday.
The biennial championship will be played between, 8 and 22 March, in two stadiums – Stade Leopold Sedar Senghor in Dakar and Stade Caroline Faye in Mbour – 80 km south of the capital Dakar.
Eight teams will take part in the tournament, with the semi-finalists qualifying for the 2015 Fifa U-20 World Cup in New Zealand.
The tournament has produced the likes of four-time African footballer of the year Yaya Toure, Sammy Kuffour, Austin Jay-Jay Okocha, Geremi Njitap, Seydou Keita, Aristide Bance, Razak Omotoyossi, Mohamed Salah and Thulani Serero.
The 19th edition in Senegal provides a perfect platform for some of the finest youth footballers in Africa who are dreaming of following in the footsteps of some of the continent’s greats.
Senegal, Congo, Ivory Coast and Nigeria
Continental powerhouse Nigeria will be seeking redemption in Senegal after they finished third in 2013, the fifth time they had won the third place play-off in the history of tournament.
The most successful team in the competition, with six titles, the Flying Eagles are expected to safely fly out of the group consisting of apparent lightweights in debutant and hosts Senegal, but they will be wary of tricky Congo and Ivory Coast.
Despite parading eight players from the team which won the 2013 Fifa U-17 World Cup, the West Africans are without Manchester City duo, Chidiebere Nwakali and Kelechi Iheanacho, as well as Genk’s Wilfried Ndidi. Yet coach Manu Garba insists he has a squad fired up for glory as they begin their campaign against the hosts on Sunday.
“I can only focus on the players here and I am happy with my boys because they are capable of doing the business,” Garba told BBC Sport. “We expect a tough tournament as the other countries are also desperate to be at the World Cup.”
Senegal wants to become the fifth host country to win the tournament after Egypt (1991), Morocco (1997) Ghana (1999) and Congo (2007).
The Young Lions under former Senegal coach Joseph Koto are a blend of tactically astute foreign-based and talented locally-based youngsters.
The Cubs are boosted by victory in final warm-up matches against Zambia and South Africa as they seek a place in the semi-finals.
“The objective is the semi-final and we have to fight for it starting with the game against Nigeria,” Koto said.
They will need France-based midfielder Roger Gomis, striking duo Ibrahim Wadji and Alassane Diouf to be at their best as they aim to make history.
Senegal will also be counting on home support to help them navigate their route out of this group.
Highly experienced Ivory Coast are seeking a sixth appearance at the World Youth Championship after making their debut at the maiden edition in 1977 in Tunisia.
Three-times AYC runners-up in 1983, 1991 and 2003, the Ivorians dispatched Liberia and narrowly edged Libya during the qualifiers.
Coach Ibrahima Kamara led Ivory Coast to the African U-17 championship title in Morocco two years ago and he has included the likes of Seck Diagabate, Yacou Meite, Chris Bedia, Junior Ahissan, Franck Kessie, Ismael Diallo, Sherif Jimoh, Aboubacar Keïta and Digbo Maïga from the class of 2013 in his squad.
They will kick off their campaign against Congo, who beat them 2-0 in 2007, knowing another defeat to the Red Devils could damage their hopes of playing in the semi-finals.
Congo won the tournament when it hosted in 2007, but the Central Africans landed in Senegal by edging both Niger and Benin on penalties and shocking Egypt 3-2 on aggregate in the final round of qualifying.
It may only be their second appearance at the AYC but Paolo Berrettini and his boys are hoping to make a bold statement on their return to the championship.
Ghana, Mali, South Africa and Zambia
Favourites Ghana have won the tournament thrice in 1993, 1999 and 2009, and finished as runners-up on two occasions in 2001 and 2013.
After conquering the continent in Rwanda in 2009, former Ghana international Sellas Tetteh led the team to the 2009 World Youth Championship title in Egypt, becoming the first and only African team to have won the competition.
The Black Satellites were dominant as they secured qualification by beating Sierra Leone and Gabon.
But Tetteh will need the likes of captain Owusu Bempah, Clifford Aboagye, who won the Bronze Ball as the third-best player at the U-20 World Cup in 2013, Samuel Afful and Samuel Tetteh to be at their best in Senegal.
Ghana have made a continental record of five semi-final appearances on the world stage but coach Tetteh has warned that counts for nothing if they fail to make it to New Zealand.
He said: “The past is history and the players must perform on the pitch to make it to the world stage.”
Vastly experienced Mali , who finished fourth in the last two editions, edged Burkina Faso 3-2 on aggregate and Togo 2-1 to make it to Senegal. The Young Eagles, who finished third at the World Cup finals in 1999 in Nigeria, are one of the group’s favourites behind Ghana.
The absence of Lille midfielder Adama Traore ‘Noss’ will come as a big blow after his French club refused to release him for the tournament. But coach Fagnery Diarra has rued his luck before adding: “It could be a big chance for another player to shine.”
Zambia , who finished fourth in 1991, 1999 and 2007, sealed qualification in brilliant fashion as they blew Mozambique away 4-0 on aggregate and beat South African rivals Malawi 3-1 over two legs.
The Junior Chipolopolo will be banking on the experience of captain Lubambo Musonda, Spencer Sautu, Larry Bwalya and Patrick Ngoma as they hope to emulate the class of 2007 who reached the round of 16 at the Fifa World Cup in Canada.
They will start their campaign against Mali on Monday knowing they carry the hopes of an expectant nation.
South Africa , runners-up in 1997 and 2009 semi-finalists, romped past Ethiopia (beating the young Antelopes 3-0 over two legs) and stunned Cameroon 3-2 on aggregate to book their place at the AYC.
The Amajitas, under coach Thabo Senong, are quick, organised and efficient but in Ghana they have a tough opening day fixture to look forward to.
Their U-17 counterparts finished second in Niger earlier this month, something that should give the Amajitas confidence to prove that their giant-killing act over Cameroon was no fluke.