New CAF championship has Olympics bait
African football breaks new ground Saturday as the first CAF under-23 championship kicks off in Morocco with places at the 2012 London Olympics also up for grabs.
The host nation are joined by Algeria, Nigeria and Senegal in Group A while Group B comprises Egypt, Gabon, Ivory Coast and South Africa and the two top in each section after a single-round mini-league advance to the semi-finals.
While the third place play-off is usually the poor relation of the knockout phase, it will not be the case in this tournament with the winners joining the champions and runners-up as automatic qualifiers for London.
Whichever country loses the December 10 Marrakech play-off gets another chance to compete at the greatest multi-sport show when they face an Asian country next year.
Stadiums in Marrakech and Tangiers with crowd capacities of 45,000 host a 15-day tournament originally scheduled for Egypt, but moved owing to security concerns.
Dutch-born Morocco coach Pim Verbeek is convincing his adopted country will be good hosts despite the cold, wet weather which greeted squads arriving in north-west Africa this week.
"Morocco has very good infrastructure, hotels and stadiums and there will be good attendances at the matches," predicted the handler who guided Australia at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
"My team attracted near-40,000 crowds when we played and won friendlies against Gambia and Ivory Coast in Tangiers recently so the signs are good," Verbeek added.
The Dutchman is also delighted with the support he has received from the football authorities and clubs, which gave him the chance to hold numerous training camps.
His sole complaint -- and it is shared by rival coaches -- is the failure to get Europe-based footballers released because the championship does not fall during FIFA international calendar dates.
"I spent many months travelling around Europe searching for and studying the form of Moroccan footballers only to be told that they cannot be released," he told reporters.
"These footballers desperately want to be part of the squad and have a chance of going to the London Olympics, but if the clubs say 'no' there is nothing they can do."
His views were echoed by Nigeria coach Austin Eguavoen, whose long list of unavailable stars includes first-choice captain Lukman Haruna and senior team midfielder Ahmed Musa.
"I have given my all trying to persuade clubs to release young Nigerians for this championship, but the reality is that many of them are not going to be with us in Morocco."
It has been even tougher for South Africa coach Ephraim 'Shakes' Mashaba with domestic clubs also reluctant to free players until the Premier Soccer League boss intervened and insisted each side release at least one footballer.
Morocco have home advantage and Nigeria a proud pedigree in CAF and FIFA age-limit competitions and they appear strong enough to reach the semi-finals at the expense of Algeria and Senegal.
Egypt got precious practice by playing Sierra Leone (1-2) and Niger (3-0) in 2012 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers after the country was eliminated and the senior players dropped.
It would be surprising if they failed to make the semi-finals and the winners of the opening round fixture between Ivory Coast and South Africa are likely to join them with unexpected qualifiers Gabon the outsiders.
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