A showcase with a difference …As South Africa hail the arrival of King Luther in Zambia
By Robson Sharuko
HARARE –Twenty years after Benni McCarthy announced his arrival on the international scene with a vintage show that won him both the Golden Ball and Golden Boot at Africa’s flagship youth football tournament, three highly rated South African teenage forwards are now taking over and making a huge impression at the CAF Under-20 Nations Cup finals in Zambia.
McCarthy, then virtually unknown on the continent let alone in his native South Africa, held Africa spellbound with his talent as he powered his national team to the CAF Under-21 championships finals in Morocco in 1997 where he emerged as the top goal-scorer and best player.
South Africa, though, could not clear the final hurdle in their quest to be champions of Africa, as they fell 0-1 to the hosts in a tightly-contested final but McCarthy had made his mark and he was soon fast-tracked into the Bafana Bafana side for the 1998 African Cup of Nations finals in Burkina Faso.
And McCarthy justified the buzz, which he was generating as he emerged as the top goal-scorer in Burkina Faso, sharing the Golden Boot with veteran Egyptian forward Hossam Hassan after scoring seven goals, and also being named the best player at the tournament.
He would go on to win the UEFA Champions League title with Porto in a successful adventure in European football.
Two decades after McCarthy made his grand entrance on to the international stage, using Africa’s flagship youth football tournament to introduce himself to the world, a trio of rising Southern African teenage footballers has been making a big claim at the on-going CAF Under-20 Nations Cup finals.
South Africa’s Luther Singh emerged as the leading goal-scorer during the group games with his four goals powering Amajita into second place, in their group, and a semi-final showdown against Zambia on Wednesday in what was a repeat of the 2016 COSAFA Under-20 final.
With both Zambia and South Africa making the semi-finals of the CAF Under-20 Nations Cup finals, it means that – for the first time – Southern Africa will have two representatives at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup finals.
It also means there would be a Southern African finalist in this tournament, for the first time since it was changed into its current format of Under-20 players from the older version that featured Under-21 players, in 2003.
Should the Cup remain in Southern Africa, as is highly expected this weekend, it would be the first time, in the history of Africa’s flagship youth football tournament that a country from this part of the continent has been crowned champions.
The tournament, which started as the CAF Under-21 Championships in 1979, has been dominated by the West African nations with Nigeria winning four titles on the trot between ’81 and ’87, and the Flying Eagles winning three of the seven Under-20 Nations Cup tournaments held since this tourney evolved into one for the Under-20 players.
But that could all change this weekend.
Zambia and South Africa were the standout teams at the last COSAFA Under-20 tournament with the Zambians beating their rivals 2-1 in a feisty encounter with Singh emerging as the Golden Boot winner with five goals.
“Personally, I would like to score more goals and also create scoring opportunities for my teammates to win games and, in the process, market South African football because there is a lot of talent in our country,” said Singh.
The teenager is already a buzz of excitement in South Africa with some analysts convinced he could be the next big thing to come out of football in that country and his performance, so far at the CAF Under-20 Nations Cup, appear to provide justification for that.
Like McCarthy, he has been given his chance to prove his mettle in Portugal after signing for top-flight side Sporting Braga having made a huge impression in the second tier of the Swedish top-flight league where he scored nine goals in 22 starts for GAIS.
His football education masterplan has already seen him spend time training at two of Brazil’s biggest football clubs and, if he can match McCarthy’s exploits, Bafana Bafana could reap rich rewards from this rising teenage star.
But he is not the only one making waves in Zambia.
The Zambian duo of Fashion Sakala and Partson Daka has also been impressive to also justify why they are highly regarded.
The two Zambian forwards scored three goals each during the group matches, powering their country to the top of their group, amid explosive scenes of joy in Lusaka where every game they have played has attracted a full-house at the National Heroes Stadium.
Sakala was recently snapped by Russian giants Spartak Moscow, where he signed a three-year deal, while Daka has been on loan at Austrian club, FC Liefering.
Sakala models his game around his idol Cristiano Ronaldo and, for millions of Zambian football fans, he provides hopes for a brighter future for their beloved Chipolopolo.
With CAF’s two inter-club knockout tournaments, the Champions League and the Confederation Cup, having been won by SADC countries, in the same year, for the first time in history, Banyana Banyana and the Mighty Warriors of Zimbabwe taking the two tickets to the 2016 Olympics in Brazil and Mamelodi Sundowns representing the continent at the FIFA Club World Cup, there is a feeling Southern Africa is now punching above its weight in football.
And, if the CAF Under-20 Nations Cup trophy is won by a country from this part of the region, those who believe Southern African football is on the march, will have reason to back their claims.