All eyes on Zambia as COSAFA begins

Harare – A 2014 World Cup campaign that has veered off track has left Southern Africa feeling a bit of a football hangover, but, for the next two weeks, the game will be at the centre of focus when the region’s biggest soccer festival returns.
With only one match to play in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, prospects of a team from Southern Africa making it to the two-legged play-offs for a place in Brazil have dimmed after poor results, by the leading contenders, in the penultimate qualifiers last month.
Zambia surrendered two huge points, in a drawn home tie against Sudan, which gave rivals Ghana the advantage and Chipolopolo will need to win in Accra, in their final game, for them to go through as the group winners.
South Africa were beaten 1-2 by Ethiopia, to go five points adrift of their rivals. While a window of hope is likely to be opened by FIFA after the East Africans used an ineligible player in a tie against Botswana, which they won, the ticket is still there for them to lose even in the event they are docked three points.
A victory against Central African Republic, who has been the punching boys of the group, in their last match, will still give Ethiopia the ticket into the final play-offs even, as is widely expected, they lose three points from their win in Botswana.
Angola, ranked the third strongest football nation in the region, according to FIFA rankings, were never in the race for the 2014 World Cup qualifiers while Zimbabwe, the fourth most powerful nation in Southern Africa, are yet to win a match in their group, in which they are bottom of the barrel.
Inevitably, there has been a sense of resignation, among the fans, across the region although Malawi’s strong campaign, where they now need a win in Nigeria to pull through, and Namibia’s battling show to steal a point against the African champions, have provided islands of hope.
Focus switches, this weekend, to the COSAFA Senior Challenge Cup as the region’s nations, and a few invited guests, battle it out for supremacy in a two-week festival in Zambia, as the tournament returns after missing on the radar since 2009 when Zimbabwe hosted and won the title.
Given the strategic timing of the festival, it gives the countries that still hold some hope, to make it to the final stage of the 2014 World cup qualifiers, like South Africa, a chance to keep working on the core group of players who will make one last stand, in September, against Botswana.
The South Africans have traditionally ignored this tournament, treating it as a nuisance and sending a number of lightweight teams, where players don’t earn any caps, into battles for the COSAFA Senior Challenge Cup in the past.
But coach Gordon Igesund, with about a dozen home-based players now featuring in his first XI and with a final 2014 World Cup date against Botswana looming in September, has decided to change things and send his frontline soldiers into battle hoping this will keep them in good shape during this off-season in their domestic championship.
Five of his players have been drawn from champions Kaizer Chiefs – Tefu Mashamaite, Erick Mathoho, Reneilwe Letsholonyane, Siphiwe Tshabalala and Bernard Parker, his leading marksman in their quest for a place at the World Cup in Brazil.
It’s the strongest side that Bafana Bafana will send to the COSAFA Senior Challenge Cup and, inevitably, it has triggered controversy back home with the leadership of Kaizer Chiefs saying they were not consulted over the usage of such a huge number of their players, who should be on a break, in this tournament.
Last Friday, Chiefs’ executive chairman, Kaizer Motaung, released a statement in which he made a scathing attack on Igesund.
“I am aware that Mr Igesund met with Bobby Motaung, Kaizer Chiefs Football Manager and Stuart Baxter, the coach, to discuss the release of players prior to the Bafana Bafana trip to Cameroon and Ethiopia,” Motaung said in the statement.
“At that meeting it was agreed that certain players had been continually deployed and were clearly over-extended.
“It was advised that they be excluded from the COSAFA squad and it was suggested that U23 players be considered to participate in the tournament.  This is what was reported to me after their meeting.
“We were clearly surprised that Mr Igesund chose Kaizer Chiefs players after this discussion.
“His comments are unfortunate and I take strong exception to his utterances. I will be writing to SAFA to register my disappointment and trust the matter will be resolved.”
South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe Angola, Mozambique and Malawi were seeded, by virtue of occupying the four highest slots on the FIFA rankings when the draw was made, and will not play in the group games but start their campaign at the quarter-final stage.
Group A will feature Namibia, Mauritius and Seychelles and was left one team short after Equatorial Guinea withdrew from the tournament while Group B will feature Kenya, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland.
Zimbabwe will play Malawi in the quarter-finals and Zambia will date Mozambique in their last eight match with Bafana Bafana waiting for the winner of Group A, likely to be Namibia, and Angola clashing with the winner of Group B. The first game will see Namibia hosting Mauritius at Nkoloma Stadium in Lusaka followed by a double header the following day, at the Arthur Davies Stadium in Kitwe – Kenya vs Lesotho and Botsana vs Swaziland.
The organisers are bullish that, despite the raft of withdrawals and the tournament’s absence from the scene for the past four years, there will be so much in store for the fans, the scouts, the clubs and the players in this edition of the COSAFA Senior Challenge Cup.
“The COSAFA Cup has a well-established history of featuring some of the brightest young prospects from the Southern African region who have gone on to either have successful careers in Europe, or feature heavily for their national sides,” the organizers said in a statement this week.
“The tournament is often used by national coaches to increase their talent pool, which makes for fascinating viewing for fans and club scouts alike.
“It is no exaggeration to say that the future of the Southern African game will be on display at this year's tournament in Zambia, and there is likely to be huge interest from the likes of South African Premier League sides, which have used past competitions to snatch up fresh talent.
“Zimbabwean Peter Ndlovu was already an established star when he featured in the first few tournaments in the late 1990s, but a new name to emerge for the Warriors was that of striker Benjani Mwaruwari, who announced his potential with a goal against Mozambique in 1998.
“It was there that he caught the attention of Jomo Cosmos owner, Jomo Sono, and was taken to South Africa, where he excelled.
“The rest, as they say, is history and he has gone on to have an extremely successful career in England with Portsmouth and Manchester City.
“South African playmaker Teko Modise was earmarked as a prodigious talent, and he was handed his first Bafana Bafana cap in the COSAFA Cup against Malawi in 2007.
“Katlego Mphela is among the most successful South African goal scorers ever. He too was handed his international debut in the COSAFA Cup in 2005.
“Zambian Chris Katongo burst onto the scene in the COSAFA Cup in 2003, and a year later followed the same route as Mwaruwari to Cosmos and ultimately on to Europe, as well as being appointed as skipper of his national side.”

July 2013
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