Cosafa Castle Cup turning 10
This year’s tournament will come to a close on October 21 when Zambia hosts Angola at the Independence Stadium to decide who will win the 10th edition of Africa’s richest regional football showcase.
It will bring the curtain down on a decade of phenomenal growth for a tournament that exploded into life in Gaborone on March 1 1997 with a clash between the Zebras of Botswana and the Flames of Malawi.
Fittingly, Zambia and Angola ‘ two of the three teams that have dominated the tournament ‘ will play in the final of the 10th edition of the Cosafa Castle Cup.
It’s a time for reflection for the organisers, the players and the fans who have all contributed not only to keep the Cosafa Castle Cup alive, but to turn it into such a huge success.
It has been an interesting and challenging journey, but the organisers can look back with pride after a dance with some of the big-name players to come out of this part of the globe during the same period.
The list is as impressive as they come ‘ from Benni McCarthy to Benjani Mwaruwari, from Collins Mbesuma to Manuel “Tico-Tico” Bucane, from Fabrice “Akwa” Maieco to Mark Fish, and from Peter Ndlovu to Shaun Bartlett.
Some danced with the tournament long after they had established their credentials as top professionals whose path to greatness was already clear.
Others used the Cosafa Castle Cup to build their profiles and attract the attention of a globe that is always on the lookout for fresh football talent.
McCarthy, the star who has had an on-and-off romance with Bafana Bafana, was a virtually unknown quantity when he played for South Africa in the Cosafa Castle Cup on January 24 1998 against Namibia in Windhoek.
He did not score in that match, which the Brave Warriors of Namibia won 3-2, but the young striker did enough to be named the man-of-match.
Coach Jomo Sono kept faith in McCarthy and gave him the responsibility to lead the line in his attack, just a few weeks after this game, as Bafana Bafana went to Burkina Faso to defend their crown as champions of African football.
Seven goals during the tournament, including two in the semi-finals, turned McCarthy into one of the stars of African football overnight and took Bafana Bafana to the final of the Nations Cup for the second successive tourney.
However, South Africa lost the final 0-2 to a technically superior Egypt but returned home to a heroes’ welcome after their brave showing in Burkina Faso.
There was a new star in their team ‘ McCarthy ‘ and the player, who had won the hearts and soul of the fans in Windhoek just a few weeks earlier in a Cosafa Castle Cup match, was on his way to superstar status.
Now at Blackburn Rovers in the English Premiership, McCarthy can look back with a lot of satisfaction on a journey that has taken him from a debut appearance in the Cosafa Castle Cup to winning the Portuguese league championship with Porto and the European Champions League with the same team.
The Bafana Bafana team that lost to Namibia that year also included defender Fish, who would also make a name for himself at English club Charlton.
Fish did not build his profile in the Cosafa Castle Cup but in the Nations Cup finals in 1996 which Bafana Bafana won at home.
But his participation in the tournament that year added value for the organisers although, sadly, the South Africans learnt the hard way that reputation counts for nothing in such local clashes.
The South Africans have been blamed by a number of critics for treating the tournament as a second-rate tourney that does not deserve the respect that it merits.
For years, they fielded makeshift sides and were duly punished by their opponents.
Then the South Africans were flying high on the continent and in the world and getting very good company, even for their friendly matches.
Now things have changed and after their disappointing show at the 2006 Nations Cup finals in Egypt ‘ where they finished rock-bottom without a goal or point to their credit ‘ Bafana Bafana have gone back to the drawing board.
And suddenly they are giving a lot of priority to the Cosafa Castle Cup.
Some of the high-profile Bafana Bafana players who have had a flirtation with the tournament include Bartlett, the nation’s all-time leading goalscorer, Delron Buckley, Siyabonga Nomvete, Phil Masinga, Bryan Baloyi, Dumisa Ngobe, Brendan Augustine and David Nyathi.
Bartlett, who also captained South Africa, was until this season part of the Charlton team in the English Premiership.
Zimbabwe captain Mwaruwari is also plying his trade in England for south coast side Portsmouth who are enjoying a great start to their campaign.
Mwaruwari, who is affectionately known as The Undertaker by his Zimbabwean fans, moved to Pompey for a club record 4.1 million pounds
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from French club AJ Auxerre.
He made his name at South African side Jomo Cosmos after a purple patch in 2000 having distinguished himself while leading the Young Warriors’ front-line, the previous year, in their brave campaign to qualify for the Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.
Benjani scored twice as the Zimbabwe Under-23 team beat Nigeria 2-0 at the National Sports Stadium in Harare.
By the end of the campaign, the Young Warriors needed only a draw in Nigeria to qualify for the Olympic Games but they collapsed after their controversial coach Clemens Westerhof was sent into the stands in the first half.
A heavy 0-4 loss, with two of the goals coming in injury time, meant that the Young Warriors crashed at the very last hurdle while Nigeria qualified for the Olympic Games.
Benjani’s profile, however, was growing and in 2000 he was part of the Warriors team that destroyed Lesotho 6-0 on aggregate in the final of the Cosafa Castle Cup.
The Undertaker’s dance with the Cosafa Castle Cup started at the semi-final stage of that year when he partnered Peter Ndlovu in the Warriors’ two-man attack against South Africa in Port Elizabeth on July 29 2000.
Benjani played for 80 minutes in that game and was replaced by Alois Bunjira.
Veteran defender Kaitano Tembo’s 11th minute header gave the Warriors a 1-0 victory that took them into a final showdown against Lesotho.
As it turned out the match was a one-sided affair as the Warriors won the first leg in Maseru 3-0 with Benjani playing the entire match.
He broke his duck in the Cosafa Castle Cup in the second leg of the final when he scored the Warriors’ third goal in the 78th minute as they completed a comfortable 6-0 aggregate win.
Benjani has grown from strength to strength since those early years and is now recognised as one of the most dangerous forwards on the continent.
He is passionate about junior development and intends to run his own school of excellence soon.
He believes the Cosafa Castle Cup is important because it gives the coaches a chance to bring in emerging talent in the countries in Southern Africa.
“It’s a very important tournament because it gives the young players the chance to mix with the old ones and show their true colours,” said Benjani.
Virtually all the high-profile Zimbabwean stars have played in the Cosafa Castle Cup as the nation has always given top priority to the tournament.
Such was the importance of the tournament that there were times when long-serving skipper Peter Ndlovu would fly into Harare just two hours before a Cosafa Castle Cup game and play in that match.
He arrived three hours before the second leg of the final against Malawi in 2003 and then scored twice as Zimbabwe roared to a comfortable victory.
Collins Mbesuma exploded onto the South African football scene with a bang and played a huge part to take Zambia to the final of the Cosafa Castle Cup last year.
He scored four times in two games in a group eliminator in Lusaka which gave Zambia the ticket to the final group phase in South Africa.
But Mbesuma, then struggling to adjust to his new life at English Premiership side Portsmouth, did not play in the final group phase in Mafikeng.
Zambia, though, went all the way to the final but lost 0-1 to Zimbabwe after a late strike by midfielder Francis Chandida.
It has been a long road for Zambia too in the tournament – from the early days in 1997 when their forward line was led by the likes of Mwape Miti, who went to Denmark and played for Odense.
Along the way the Zambians fielded such seasoned professionals like Kenneth “Bubble” Malitoli, Johnson Bwalya and Kalusha Bwalya whose failure to convert a penalty in the shootout against Angola two years ago sparked riots in Lusaka.
Rotson Kilambe, now in South Africa, won his ticket to professional football after scoring a late goal as Zambia won the tournament with a 1-0 victory over Zimbabwe at the National Sports Stadium in Harare in September 1998.
The Cosafa Castle Cup roadshow continues and new heroes and villains will emerge in the next five years of a tournament that has risen from humble beginnings into the colossus that it is at the moment.
It has been a great adventure for the tournament and it has had great company.