Harare – After years of being reduced to a playground for some of the region’s average and budding footballers, the COSAFA Cup is fighting back in spectacular fashion this year with a number of national coaches going against the tradition and bringing a number of their big guns to the tournament set for the Limpopo Province in South Africa.
This year’s tournament is set to start on May 27 although the seeded giants – record-winners Zimbabwe, South Africa, Zambia, Swaziland, Namibia and Lesotho – will only join the party at the quarter-final stage in the first week of June.
The Warriors of Zimbabwe started their campaign last year in the group stages, among the minnows of the region, but fought all the way to the final where they crushed bitter rivals Zambia 3-1 to be crowned champions for a record fifth time.
The result was a carbon copy of the last meeting between the two countries in Harare in 2009 when Zimbabwe again emerged triumphant after thrashing their biggest rivals by a similar scoreline in the final of the same tournament at Rufaro Stadium before 40,000 fans.
The Warriors’ triumph last year was built on the contribution of their South Africa-based players, with striker Knox Mutizwa being voted Player of the Tournament, while skipper Ovidy Karuru was top-scorer as he destroyed defences while playing just behind the main strikers.
Goalkeeper George Chigova, who is also based in South Africa, also contributed a huge part to that success story.
That template appears to have been copied by the other coaches who have hinted they will use some of their best players at the tournament with Bafana Bafana gaffer, Stuart Baxter, drafting players from Europe in his preliminary squad.
They include striker Luther Singh, who was outstanding for the South Africa Under-20 side that qualified for the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in South Korea last year, and is now based at Portuguese side, Sporting Braga.
Lebo Mothiba of French top-flight side Lille has also been drafted into the preliminary squad while Phakamani Mahlambi of Egyptian powerhouse, Al Ahly, is also part of the team.
The South Africans have, in the past, used players from the lower leagues but Baxter’s preliminary squad has a South African Premiership flavour with players from some of the country’s top clubs, including Kaizer Chiefs, and SuperSport United.
“The draw has given us a lot of exciting games to look forward to and I’m sure the organisers are smacking their lips at the prospect of the games,” Baxter told the official COSAFA website.
“In terms of the matches, one thing that makes it very exciting is that this is not a [FIFA] calendar date where we can be guaranteed all our players, so it throws up a lot of very interesting scenarios.
“We took what was supposed to be an under-strength team to the last COSAFA tournament and yet six of those players went on to secure contracts in the PSL [Premier Soccer League] and today are leading players in the league.
“One of the exciting things for South Africa is that while we may not get all the players we want, we certainly will have a team that we want and a team that we hope can represent South Africa with pride.
“I think it’s been more challenging in the previous years because we didn’t really have a clear position on what we want from the tournament. So many times we stumbled into the tournament with an under-strength team.
“Now the strategy should be clear, we will pick the strongest possible team. At the same time investing time in younger players who we feel will go on to play in the Olympics and maybe Bafana Bafana.
“Therefore, we have a clear picture of what we want now, so I think it makes it less challenging. I hope we will serve South Africa and SAFA in their vision of moving forward and I hope the co-operation without clubs will lead to us securing a team that we can be very hopeful with.
“Looking at the opponents, there will be tough games to look forward to and I hope we can embellish the tournament and give South Africans, whether they watch on television or live, something special to talk about.”
Zimbabwe coach Sunday Chidzambwa has also declared he will use his best possible squad, including captain Knowledge Musona and talisman Khama Billiat, for this year’s COSAFA Cup.
Chidzambwa said, with the World Cup being held this year, he won’t have another good opportunity to test some of the combinations he wants to use for his team when the 2019 AFCON qualifiers resume in September.
“The World Cup will only end in July and there won’t be another opportunity for us to have our boys into the team and see how they play in a competitive match using the tactics that we want to employ so that we can see where we can improve,’’ said Chidzambwa, who has won the tournament three times.
He also holds the impressive record of not having lost a match in the COSAFA Cup.
“For us, the COSAFA Cup could not have come at a better time, in terms of providing us with game time for our best players and for us to see who can play where and what formula we can use when the AFCON qualifiers come along,’’ he told The Southern Times.
“We don’t usually get tough friendly matches and this is our chance because most of our best players will be home given that their leagues would have come to an end in South Africa and in Europe and we can now have them for this tournament.
“It’s a good platform and last year we gave a run to Talent Chawapihwa and see how he exploded and how his career has been growing since then and we now know where we can use him for the national team, his pace and now we need to see how we can fit him with the likes of Knowledge (Musona) and Khama.’’
Warriors manager, Wellington Mpandare, confirmed that Musona was part of their plans.
“We are going to meet a technical department sometime on Tuesday to discuss the squad call-up and when we can go into camp,’’ he told COSAFA.com.
“The coach wants a longer camp because there a number of new faces he also wants to have a closer look before the COSAFA Cup starts.
“Obviously Knowledge being our captain is going to be part of this squad and unless something happens which might change the circumstances, he will lead the team in Limpopo and he has already confirmed his availability in the communication that we have had with him.
“The bulk of the squad will be made up of foreign-based players. We are looking at using the COSAFA Cup games as an opportunity for our team to gel into the unit that we want it to be by the time we resume our African Cup of Nations qualifiers in September.’’
Malawi’s Belgian coach, Ronny Van Geneugden, said he was also looking at using some of his best players.
“I want to take a strong squad. Our target is to ensure that we go beyond the group stage and take it from there,” said Van Geneugden, with team manager, James Sangala, revealing that five foreign-based players have already availed themselves for selection.
“Portugal-based striker Richard Mbulu (Sanjoanense Sports Association) is already in the country,” said Sangala.
“Mozambique-based John Banda (Ferroviario de Nampula) and Chawanangwa Kaonga (Costa do Sol) are also available.”
Namibia coach Ricardo Mannetti said he will use the tournament to blood new players into the Brave Warriors set-up.