South Africa’s U-20 youth team were thrown to the wolves in the draw for the Fifa World Cup, which was made in South Korea this week, and Thabo Senong’s charges will have to produce something special to make any headway at the tournament.
The South Africans were paired with Uruguay, Japan and Italy in Group D of the tournament, which gets underway on May 20. The winners of the Confederation of African Football U-20 African Nations Cup, Zambia, were thrown into Group C with Portugal, Iran and Costa Rica, and stand a better chance of emerging from this group.
Senegal are also in a relatively lightweight group that includes the United States, Saudi Arabia and Ecuador, and the African silver medalists, qualifying for the second time for this event, could make it out if they negotiate their way carefully, particularly against the Americans.
But have pity on Guinea — the West Africans open the tournament against host South Korea and then face five-times winners Argentina and finally England. It is without doubt the toughest draw of all the Africans.
“We made it this far, which has been our primary objective,” said Senong after the draw, which was conducted by legendary Argentineans Diego Maradonna and Pablo Aimar, who won the tournament with their native country in 1979 and 1997 respectively.
“We have always been guided by Safa’s [South African Football Association’s] Vision 2022 and it is vitally important for this group to come to the party in Korea, play our brand of football and compete. We will not just make up the numbers in Korea and we aim to pitch up and compete really hard,” Senong said.
South Africa’s opener is against Japan at the 42 655-seater Suwon Stadium. The Blue Samurais come to South Korea with a gold medal after winning the Asian U-19 tournament for the first time, after six attempts ended in silver.
Japan have been inconsistent at youth level and seem to lack the cutting edge of their senior team. But they should not be underestimated, given that the country is concentrating on this group as its representatives at the 2022 Fifa World Cup.
Amajita’s second opponents three days later on May 24, also at the Suwon Stadium, will be against the Gli Azzurri (Italy), who have been present at this level for nearly 60 years. Although their seniors have won the World Cup an impressive four times, they have never won anything at youth level. Nonetheless, coach Alberigo Evani has assembled a talented group of youngsters.
The final group match for Amajita will be on May 27 at the Inchen Stadium against Uruguay, who will be making a 14th appearance at this tournament. Although they have never won it, the South Americans twice lost in the final.
If anything, Senong will be well advised to come up with a plan on how to contain Uruguay’s free- scoring striker, Rodrigo Amaral, who grabbed five goals. Co-strikers Nicolás Schiappacasse and Nicolás de la Cruz snatched three each to help La Celeste to qualify in the South American contest.
This will be the third time South Africa make an appearance at this tournament. To their slight advantage, Amajita come with a free-scoring Luther Singh partnered by Liam Jordan, who were instrumental in helping the country to qualify. At this more demanding level, both need to step up and be counted.