Age group competitions are packaged and marketed the same way around the world. To the players it is a chance to literally sell themselves, as scouts scramble over the next stars of world football. In many ways it is a chance to live a dream. To the clubs it is a one stop shop to identify the future stars. To the teams and countries involved it is a chance to check whether the talent production carousel is well oiled and capable of churning out players who can step up to the senior levels and hold their own in the most crucial moments.
Sometimes it sounds a bit boring. Yet nothing as boring as that has held true tournament after tournament. That is why the eight African countries assembled in Senegal take the Africa Youth Championship serious. It has always been an event that provides a good idea of what the future holds for individuals for countries.
And as Ghana prepares to make their bow in Senegal later today [Monday], some players are about to ingrain their names on our memory forever while others take a battering, unjustifiably for good.
The pace that Nigeria set on the opening day was blistering. The six-time winners of the competition reserved for U-20 players and world champions from the U-17 two years ago arrived in Senegal as favourites. They laid down the marker by dispatching a Senegal side who like their seniors continue to prove that having talent is one thing, moulding them into teams capable of winning games is another.
Ghana will be hoping they can live up to that. Like Nigeria this competition means the world in Ghana. Sometimes you need to look at the relation to the powerhouses in African football to draw the link to the ones who do well at the U-20 level.
Nigeria, Ghana and Egypt are the top three ranked sides in the history of the competition. They also rank highly when it comes to doing well in the senior Africa Cup of Nations and often with players who tend to learn their trade from the juniors. It is no coincidence that Zambia became African champions with a squad dominated by players who had clinched their first ever world U-20 cup place five years earlier.
When Ghana reached the final of the Nations Cup earlier this year, there were reminders all over the pitch of that. Baba Rahman, Jonathan Mensah, AfriyieAcquah, Mubarak Wakaso, DedeAyew, Jordan Ayew had all served time in the junior.
Before them the U-20s had moulded one of the best generation of Ghanaian players under Emmanuel Afranie when they took second place in Ethiopia at the African edition and then second behind Argentina in the world cup.
That stage played a central role in the making of some of the biggest names in Ghana football who will go on to qualify Ghana for a first ever world cup in 2006 and then dominate the sport for many years. Michael Essien, SulleyMuntari, Derek Boateng, John Paintsil, John Mensah, RazakPimpong all made their bones there.
Perhaps the best production year though was in 2009 under SellasTetteh. His team had DedeAyew Jonathan Mensah, Agyemang Badu, Samuel Inkoom, Rabui Mohammed who will all go to play significant roles as Ghana reached the Nations Cup final the following year.
In order for the production line to run with the junior, a bit like a school system, there must be competent teachers capable and skilled in the art of passing the message on to youngsters. Afranie did it well with the U-17s and later the U-20s. Tetteh bettered that, taking first the U-17 team he had to the semi-final of the 2007 world U-17 championship before masterminding that remarkable world U-20 triumph two years later in Egypt.
It is not exactly Jose Pekermen range but you will struggle to find a coach in Ghana more adept at youth level. There are those who are happy to knock Tetteh with his inability to leave indelible prints on Rwanda football when he believed his own hype and took a job there, ignoring the relative low talent level to Ghana so vital for success. None of those people can fault him for his contribution to youth football in Ghana.
With the U-20s in tatters two years ago, Tetteh mounted a return, took them to the final of the tournament where they lost on penalties before impressing at the world cup only to be knocked out by eventual winners France.
That team was the clearest evidence of the impact he could have on the youth system. In Senegal he would be in charge of a team that has been his handiwork from day one.
And that, as we have come to know, means we can look forward to this competition with some hope and belief that they will thrill us.
Ghana’s history with the Africa Youth Championship is a strange one. Often we have been good or bad. There is never really a middle group.
The first title was in 1993 with the likes of Sammy Kuffour, Daniel Addo and Augustine Arhinful. Then the team did not even qualify for the competition in 2005 before returning in 1997 when they went on to reach the semi-final at the world event in Malaysia. In 1999, Ghana triumphed on home soil but had to wait ten years before Tettehmasterminded the 2009 victory for a third trophy. In between that there was second place in 2001 before Tetteh’s team added another second place finish in 2013.
Not that Tetteh will mind another second place. With four places available for Africa at the 2015 World Youth Championship later in May, Tetteh’s objective seems fairly nailed on.
“Our first objective is to qualify for the World Cup. We want to be among the best four and then we can start thinking about the trophy,”Tetteh says.
We have come to know through his deeds that we can trust him on this.
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