In between their two matches against Senegal, the Flying Eagles beat Congo 4-1, dropped their only point during the tournament against Côte d'Ivoire in a 2-2 draw, before beating Ghana's Black Satellites 2-0 in the semi-final. Manu Garba's team went into the final as the overwhelming favourites and the coach said they had one more rung to climb. “Our objective in Senegal was to qualify for the World Cup as the African champions.”
The west Africans had a number of star players in their side, most glaringly Taiwo Awoniyi, Chidera Ezeh, Obinna Nwobodo and tournament top scorer Musa Muhammed, and they could be even stronger at the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015 with more players prepared to play in the global tournament.
The hosts enjoyed a fairytale ride to the final. After losing their opening game, they conceded a last-gasp equaliser against Côte d'Ivoire in their second match and were staring elimination in the face in their third as they were down 3-2 against Congo with just three minutes to go. Needing to win to advance and qualify for their first-ever U-20 World Cup, Les Linoceaux pushed everything forward and were rewarded with two late goals from substitute Sidy Sarr that gave them a dramatic victory.
Having made the last four, the Senegalese had already qualified for the world finals, but more was to follow as they scored another late goal to secure a 2-1 victory against Mali in the last four. That set them up with the opportunity to win their first continental championship at any age level, but it was not to be. “We wanted to win, but we did not and now we have to congratulate the Nigerians,” said Koto, who previously played for and coached the senior national team.
Ghana lose the plot
Ghana, who were expected to meet the Flying Eagles in the final, meanwhile, made their own job more difficult by losing their final group game against Mali 1-0. Both teams had already qualified for the all-important semi-finals by beating South Africa and Zambia in their two opening matches, but plenty rode on their last game as the group winner would avoid favourites Nigeria in the last four.
The Black Satellites had a slight advantage as their 2-0 win over South Africa and 2-1 victory against Zambia, saw them top the group and needing 'only' a draw against Les Aiglons du Mali to avoid the Flying Eagles. But at the end of the 90 minutes it was Ichaka Diarra's early goal that separated the two teams and gave Mali top spot in the group. As both sides went on to lose their respective semi-finals, they met again in the play-off for third place, with the Ghanaians turning things around and taking home a comfortable 3-1 victory through a Yaw Yeboah brace and another goal by Spanish-based Clifford Aboagye. Malick Toure scored a consolation goal for Mali late in the game.
One of the stars in the Mali side was goalkeeper Sory Ibrahima Traore, who only got a chance to play because the regular No1 picked up an injury. The 19-year-old, who plays for AS Bamako, said their New Zealand campaign will benefit from their matches against strong teams like Ghana. "I am confident. I think we will go to the World Cup with an ambition to do better than the 1999 class of players [the Malian U-20 team, led by Seydou Keita, finished 3rd in the World Cup]. It is very exciting to go to a World Cup. This will be a first for me, and I will be highly motivated."
Traore will, obviously, not be the only highly-motivated player in New Zealand and for the 21 Nigerian, Senegalese, Ghanaian and Malian players, the U-20 World Cup will provide them with an opportunity to play on the highest stage available to youth internationals. They will surely need no more motivation than that.