Eyes on Namibia
It is the first Cosafa Castle Cup fixture since the region’s leader ‘ Ismail Bhamjee ‘ was expelled from the World Cup finals in Germany last month in the wake of a damaging scandal that humiliated the entire southern bloc.
Bhamjee, the long-serving chairman of Cosafa and a Fifa executive committee member, was kicked out of Germany after being caught selling tickets for the England versus Trinidad match at inflated prices.
The Botswana official has kept a very low profile since his return home but the region is still counting the costs of an embarrassing scandal ‘ especially with the World Cup coming to this part of the continent in four years.
For the Cosafa family, it is therefore key that this tournament in Namibia is a huge success just to show the world that life was not squeezed out of the region by Bhamjee’s apparent stupidity.
It’s ironic that Namibia should host the tournament that redeems the profile of Cosafa after the same country also played host to one of the first four official Cosafa Castle Cup match nine years ago.
In those formative years of the Cosafa Castle Cup, the teams were flown to away venues on planes chartered specifically for the adventure by the tournament’s official sponsors ‘ South African Breweries.
Zimbabwe’s Warriors arrived in Namibia on Friday March 14 1997 for their Cosafa Castle Cup showdown and found a nation that was in party mood and at peace with its national football team.
Amid party scenes in Windhoek, the Warriors ‘ with a massive backing from Zimbabwean students studying in Namibia ‘ took the lead when Gilbert Mushangazhike fired home with just 14 minutes remaining on the clock.
But Namibia erupted into a frenzy when Johannes “Congo” Hindjou ‘ then the golden boy of their football ‘ grabbed the equaliser from the penalty spot with just two minutes remaining the clock.
Then, in the very final minute of extra-time, Hindjou again converted from the spot and Namibia were on their way to a memorable victory.
It was a shock result given that the Warriors were generally expected to roll over the Namibians who were largely considered lightweights at this stage of the game.
But the Namibians showed that their shock victory over the Zimbabweans was not a fluke as they powered their way to the Nations Cup finals in Burkina Faso the following year.
The Namibian heroes of that afternoon in Windhoek in 1997 ‘ when the country marked its official marriage with the Cosafa Castle Cup ‘ were Fillemon Kanalelo, Petrus Haraseb, Frans Ananias, Bimbo Tjihero, Mohammed Ouseb, Stanley Goagoseb, Sandro de Gouveia, Ricardo Mannetti, Gervatius Uri Khob, Johannes Hindjou and Liyali Numwa.
Rusten Mogane was the coach of that competitive side that went all the way to the semi-finals of the Cosafa Castle Cup in the same year before losing to Malawi.
The Namibian Brave Warriors then booked their place in the African Nations Cup finals the following year in Burkina Faso ‘ a feat that the experienced Zimbabwe Warriors only achieved after 23 years.
They never set the stage alight in Burkina Faso but their brave fightback ‘ from 0-4 down to a final score of 3-4 against Cote d’Ivoire ‘ won them a lot of sympathy among many neutrals.
Eight years have passed since those heady days of Namibian football and, to be realistic, the team has taken many steps backwards during that period.
They have failed to qualify for the Nations Cup finals since their debut in Burkina Faso and have struggled to make an impact in the Cosafa Castle Cup.
The players that the system produced before the turn of the new millennium like Kanalelo, Shivute and Ouseb, who went on to make names for themselves in foreign lands, has failed to produce players of a similar quality.
Namibia have lost five of their last six matches in the regional competition and not won a game inside 90 minutes since they beat Mozambique in September, 1998.
The Brave Warriors reached the Cosafa Castle Cup final the following year but only after eliminating three sides on post-match penalties in successive matches before losing 2-1 on aggregate to Angola in the final.
But there have been signs that there could be light at the end of the tunnel.
After all Namibian club side Civics ‘ known as The Bethlehem Boys ‘ made a huge impact in the African Champions League this year.
Earlier this year the Namibians watched as neighbours Botswana caused a huge upset by winning their mini-league group with a sensational victory over South Africa.
Since that day the pressure has been on the Brave Warriors to turn on the style and emulate their Botswana counterparts.
Of course they were always favourites against a Seychelles team that is only playing in the tournament for the second time.
The Indian Ocean islanders joined the Cosafa Castle Cup family last year and it was their entry into the competition that forced a change of format.
It meant that there were now 13 teams in the competition and knockout groups were established in a new test of endurance for the teams.
This is the third different format that has been used for a competition that is always revolving with the times.
Angola ‘ dramatic winners of the tournament two years ago when they went into the lion’s den in Lusaka and triumphed on a penalty shootout that will always be remembered for Kalusha Bwalya’s miss from the spot, have already qualified for the semi-finals.
They won their mini-league group in Lesotho earlier this year.
The winners of this mini-group today will then join Angola, Botswana and holders Zimbabwe who received a bye.
The two semifinals will be played on the weekends of August 19-20 and 16-17 September. The final will be played on the weekend of 21-22 October.
Zimbabwe won the Cosafa Castle Cup for the third time last year after powering their way to victory in South Africa with an impressive show.
Using players based in their domestic league, the Warriors did well to beat Angola 2-1 in the semi-final before they edged Zambia 1-0 in the final with midfielder Francis Chandida scoring a late priceless winner.
Charles Mhlauri, the dreadlocked young coach who was the architect of that success, is still in charge of the Warriors after being rewarded for the success that the team has achieved under his guidance.
He is in Windhoek on a spying mission with his interest being on the Malawians who will meet the Warriors in the opening qualifying match of the 2008 Nations Cup finals in September.
Mhlauri said he will continue using his development side for Cosafa Castle Cup assignments.
Today’s final match brings the curtain down on the mini-league phase and the organisers are happy with the way that the tournament has progressed.
“The annual southern African championship remains without equal in world soccer and has become an event that others seek to copy,” reads the official Cosafa website.
“It has delivered four different winners and also seen another three countries play in the final, proving the competitive nature of the event.
“The Cosafa Castle Cup enjoys a wide profile, well beyond the borders of its member countries.
“Live television coverage, unprecedented for a competition of this nature, takes the event into the homes of people right throughout Africa and also into Europe and South America.
“The tournament is one of a kind on the international calendar, given that no other regional event can boast a similar longevity or as wide a reach as the Cosafa Castle Cup.
“On top of a brilliant competition, the Cosafa Castle Cup also offers record prize money and other financial incentives for the players.
“Caste Lager has annually increased its sponsorship of the tournament and brought in many innovative premiums along the way.”
For Namibian football fans ‘ just like their counterparts in Lesotho and Botswana ‘ the festival has been a breadth of fresh air in countries that really need such events to fuse life into their football.
They have been able to see some of the best emerging talents in the region.
Zambia’s caretaker coach Patrick Phiri brought a very youthful team as the Copper Bullets try to build a team that will be competitive come the 2010 World Cup finals which will be held in South Africa.
Phiri drafted in three foreign-based players ‘ Kennedy Mweene and Clive Hachilensa from Free State Stars and striker James Chamanga from Umtata Bush Bucks in South Africa.
But the real gem among the rising Zambian youthful crop is winger Rainford Kalaba, who returned to his Zambian club ZESCO United after a spell in the French top-flight league with Nice.
Eight of the players that the Zambians brought to Windhoek were in Egypt for the African Cup of Nations where Chipolopolo, then under the guidance of Kalusha Bwalya, lost two games and beat Bafana Bafana.
Malawi brought in four South Africa-based players but coach Burkhard Ziese would have loved to have his star forward Essau Kanyenda for this challenge.
Peter Wadabwa, who has just signed for Jomo Cosmos, and the Black Leopards trio of Allan Kamanga, Peter Mponda and Robert Ngambi are the South Africa-based players in the Malawian squad.
Coming into this weekend the Namibian Brave Warriors had not won a match ‘ inside 90 minutes ‘ for eight years and, whichever way you look at this, it makes very sorry reading.
But their fans never stopped hoping and most of them were counting on the German effect hoping that hosting such a mini-league tournament, like this one, would change the fortunes of their national team.
It has been a trying time for Namibian football just like it has also been a trying time for entire Cosafa family in the wake of the Bhamjee scandal.
But football, just like life, has to go on.