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FLYING EAGLES AIM FOR THE SKIES AS CAF U20 CHAMPIONSHIP OPENS

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BY APESIN ADEMOLA

The Flying Eagles return to CAF U20 Championship after missing the last edition in Zambia two years ago. Sudan eliminated Nigeria on away goal rule at the final qualifying stage of Zambia 2017, denying the most successful team in competition another opportunity to showcase their skills.

Nigeria have lifted the African title a record seven times, the last time being in 2015 when they beat hosts Senegal 1-0 in the final.

Head coach Paul Aigbogun submitted his 21-man final list on January 21 ahead of this Saturday’s opening fixture against Burundi, expressing optimism that his team would triumph in neighbouring Niger Republic.

With the best four team in the championship representing Africa in the FIFA U20 World Cup to be hosted by Poland from May 23 to June 15, the Flying Eagles, finalists at the world stage in 1989 and 2005, will be fired up to qualify from the continent and then challenge for honours in Poland.

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The team’s recent build-up fixture against Saudi Arabia U20 in Jeddah was cancelled but the mood in the camp is said to be exciting.

Burundi, Nigeria’s first opponents at Stade General Seyni Kountche in Niamey, are appearing in the competition for the second time. In their inaugural experience, the Junior Itamba went all the way to the final of Nigeria 1995 only to crash to Cameroon 0-4.

Burundi were responsible for Zambia not defending the title they won at home two years ago. They eliminated the Junior Chipolopolo in the final qualifying round.

In the opening match of Niger Republic 2019, the host nation will take on South Africa, both teams in the same Group A with Nigeria.

South Africa’s best performance was being in the final of Morocco 1997, which was won by the hosts 1-0. The Amajita were the fourth placed team in Rwanda 2009 as well as in the last edition two years ago, losing the bronze medal battle in the former to Nigeria 1-2.

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This edition is the debut outing for Niger Republic in the competition.

Action will begin in Group B on Sunday with Ghana, the only African team to have lifted the world trophy, going up against Burkina Faso, while Senegal and Mali square up in the earlier fixture.

The Black Satellites won the competition for the third – and last – time in 2009 and represented the continent very well at the global stage later that year in Egypt. Captained by 
André Ayew, Ghana beat all comers and faced still opposition against Brazil in the final. After a pulsating 120-minute of action that produced no goal, Ghana triumphed through the penalty shootout 4-3.

Burkina Faso, Ghana’s Matchday 1 opponents at Stade de Maradi, in Niger Republic’s third largest city, finished in fourth place when they hosted the competition in 2003 and crashed out at the group stage in 2007 in Congo Republic.

Senegal were runners up in the last edition losing to Zambia 0-2.  It was a repeat of their performance as hosts in 2015 with Nigeria winning the showpiece match 1-0 in Dakar.

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Mali, who face Senegal on Sunday, were runners-up in 1989 and bronze medallists in 2003.

Saturday’s matches…

Group B: Senegal v Mali (4:30pm), Burkina Faso v Ghana (7:30pm)

Sunday’s matches…

Group A: Nigeria v Burundi (7:30pm), Niger Republic v South Africa (4:30pm)

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Kunle Solaja is the author of landmark books on sports and journalism as well as being a multiple award-winning journalist and editor of long standing. He is easily Nigeria’s foremost soccer diarist and Africa's most capped FIFA World Cup journalist, having attended all FIFA World Cup finals from Italia ’90 to Qatar 2022. He was honoured at the Qatar 2022 World Cup by FIFA and AIPS.

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