No matter what happened in Sunday’s final of the 2019 CAF Africa U-20 Cup of Nations, a new name would be etched on the trophy, with finalists Mali and Senegal having never won the competition before.
In the end it was the Eagles who prevailed, triumphing in a penalty shootout after the teams had drawn 1-1 after extra time.
South Africa took third place on the podium thanks to their defeat of Nigeria in the match for third place a day earlier. With the qualifying competitions for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Poland 2019 having now been completed, FIFA.com runs the rule over the four African sides who will represent the continent this coming May.
The champions: First crown for Mali
Thirty years on from reaching their first Africa U-20 Cup of Nations final on their maiden appearance in the competition, Mali finally took their chance. Boubacar Traore put them ahead against the Senegalese 15 minutes in, and though Souleymane Aw forced extra time with a 75th-minute equaliser, the Eagles held their nerve to win the shootout.
In winning the competition for the first time, the Malians underscored the progress they have been making in recent years. The third place they achieved at the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015 capped a stunning run that included a quarter-final defeat of Germany.
Mali endured some highs and lows en route to their maiden African title. Playing a pragmatic brand of football, they had to work hard to stay in the competition and showed their mental strength in seeing off Senegal in the final. The question now is, can they play a more ambitious and enterprising game in Poland?
Runners-up: Senegal come up short again
Senegal maintained their fine recent record by reaching the world finals for the third time in a row. The Lions of Teranga cruised through the group phase in Niger, scoring nine goals in three games – comfortably more than any other side – and conceding only one.
They then scored a narrow win over South Africa to reach their third consecutive final in the competition. Fourth at New Zealand 2015 after losing to Mali in the match for third place, the Senegalese will be hoping their attack can fire in Poland. Youssouph Badji will be crucial to that objective, having top-scored in Niger with three goals.
Third: South Africa making progress
The South Africans were solid if unspectacular throughout the tournament, never more so than in holding Nigeria to a goalless draw in Group A. That scoreline that was repeated in the match for third place, which South Africa then won on penalties.
It was the country’s second top-three finish in the competition after their second place in 1997. The Amajita’s biggest asset is their contingent of foreign-based players, some of whom run out in Europe’s major leagues.
“That’s always a good thing,” said coach Thabo Senong. “We had a group of young players abroad 15 years ago, like Benni McCarthy‚ Steven Pienaar and Quinton Fortune, who then lent their experience to the national team.”
Fourth: Nigeria losing their lustre
Undisputed kings of the continent with seven titles in all, Nigeria were anxious to atone for failing to reach the African finals in 2017. On the podium six times in a row between 2005 and 2015, they had to content themselves with fourth place on this occasion.
It would nevertheless be unwise to underestimate the Nigerians in Poland, given their fine record on the global U-20 stage. They have yet to win the world title in the age group, however, with Ghana the only African side to do so to date, in 2009.