Niamey - With a continental title eluding them over the years, South Africa will be hoping to go all the way at the Under-20 Africa Cup of Nations in Niger starting on Saturday.
Amajita, as the South African juniors are affectionately known have successfully stamped their authority in the Southern part of the continent after their two back-to-back Cosafa Under-20 titles that saw them secure a place in Niger.
However, similar success has proven to be difficult against the rest of Africa when travelling further up the continent.
A third-place finish is the closest they have come to tasting continental success when they made their debut in 1997. Now preparing for their eighth appearance, South Africa have a steep mountain to climb having been drawn in the same group as hosts Niger, Burundi and tournament favourites, Nigeria.
A fourth-place finish is a target that Amajita coach, Thabo Senong has set for his charges, which guarantees a place in the Under-20 World Cup in Poland later in the year. However, nothing would please the 38-year-old coach more than to guide his side to a number one finish.
Boasting an array of promising youngsters, Senong will be looking at raising the bar even higher this time around following their last-four finish in Zambia two years ago.
On the field, the team will be led by Khulekani Kubheka who will be making his second AFCON appearance after helping the team qualify for their World Cup two years ago. Kubheka is one of the most experienced members of the squad having represented his nation at continental championships at both Under-17 and Under-20 AFCON.
Besides Kubheka, Amajita have five players who have graduated from the Amajimbos (Under-17 national team) which is a huge plus for Senong and his technical team.
The four players are Glen Baadjies, Luke Le Roux, Kabomelo Kodisang, Malebogo Modise and Thabiso Monyane who will bring the much-needed stability to the side.
From the 21-man squad, only six players lack national team experience but have shown great promise to be selected by the South African technical team.
Among the uncapped players is, Khanya Leshabela who plies his trade in England for Leicester City's reserve side. The 19-year-old may not have national team experience but being in the reserve side of one of English Premier League sides certainly gives South Africa a unique dimension.
Leshabela is not the only Amajita player playing abroad. In their arsenal, Amajita also have Kabomelo Kodisang (19), who was signed by Portuguese side Sanjoanense FC after impressing at the Under-20 AFCON and later at the Under-20 World Cup in Korea Republic.
Another star on the rise, Sphesihle Mkhize will be looking at giving a good show of himself in Niger. The defensive midfielder nicknamed "Busquets" will be hoping to celebrate his 20th birthday with a victory over Nigeria in their final Group A match on Tuesday, February 5.
The team is unfortunately without their lethal striker, Lyle Foster who is still finding his feet after recently penning a three-year deal with French club, Monaco from Orlando Pirates.
In unlocking what is most likely going to be very tough defence lines in the competition, Amajita have the skilful Promise Mkhuma who was voted player of the tournament in the recent Cosafa Under-20 Championship last year in Zambia.
The speedy winger who is on the books of Mamelodi Sundowns said a top-four finish is a target they have set for themselves, but will give it their best shot at lifting the title.
"Our primary objective is to reach the final four, which will guarantee us a place in this year's World Cup. Once that is achieved, we will shift our focus in pushing our way into this year's Afcon final, and possibly winning it for the nation. Our intention is to continue with this habit of grinding out positive results for the nation," said the forward.
SA's first match is against host Niger in Niamey on Saturday - African News Agency (ANA), Editing by Michael Sherman. ‑ Nampa/ANA