This year’s edition of the biennial Under 20 FIFA World Cup held in New Zealand came to an end with Serbia beating Brazil in the final at the dying minutes of Extra time. The third place final saw two African teams playing each other, where Mali defeated Senegal 3-0.
All four African teams in the tournament reached playoffs (top 16). This is much better feat than in senior World Cup where Africa struggles to send even one team past group stage. Ghana is the only African team to win U20 World Cup, in 2005. They have also recorded two lost finals and one third place, as have Nigeria, but the latter lacks a championship. This year’s third place was the second for Mali, the first one dating back to 1999.
Africa’s record is even better in the Under-17 World Cup. Defending champions Nigeria is the most successful team of all with four titles and being runner-ups thrice. Ghana has won two titles and has same number of lost finals (they reached the final four consecutive times 1991 to 1997).
The Olympic football tournament can also be counted as a youth competition due to its U23 limit save three man overage quota. Both Nigeria and Cameroon have won an Olympic gold, in 1996 and 2000, respectively.
So why Africa is much more successful at youth than senior level?
All African teams in the U20 World Cup had a mixed squad of locally based and those playing in Europe. At Under 17 level almost all African players are still based in their home countries, probably already at senior level. Despite African domestic leagues being relatively weak, playing against senior players may give them an advantage over those playing mostly against their age-mates. African players, desperate to make professional football, may also put all possible extra effort at international tournaments to prove their skills. The unfortunate issue of using overage players may still play a role for some teams to perform well at youth level.
At senior level African teams are composed of players from various different European leagues, these won’t easily make a good team (even Brazil may have the same problem, they are a collection of individual world-class stars rather than a coherent team). Despite many earning good money at club level, some players think money over honor when playing for the national team. Everyone remembers the infamous Cameroon players’ protest before the 2014 World Cup over the bonus of £61000 not being enough for appearing at the World Cup. Eventually Cameroon lost all their three games at the tournament.