The 2019 COSAFA Men’s Under-20 Championship will provide a piece of history as the record sixth tournament to be staged by the Southern African football body in the year.
The championship is set for Lusaka, Zambia from December 4-14 and will feature 12 teams in the race for what is one of the most coveted prizes in the region.
It is the culmination of a busy 12 months for COSAFA, that has also seen the staging of the Men’s Senior and Under-17 championships, and Women’s Senior, Under-20 and Under-17 finals.
Hosts Zambia will headline the field, which also includes Angola, Botswana, Comoros Islands, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles and South Africa, with an exciting guest nation to be announced soon.
Madagascar, Namibia and Zimbabwe are the three COSAFA nations who will not be competing in 2019.
The teams will be split into three pools each containing four sides, with the top team in each pool and the best-placed runner-up advancing to the semifinals.
South Africa have claimed the last two editions of the finals, but with much of that team having now graduated up to the Under-23s, there is the very real chance of a new champion.
In fact, South Africa (four titles) and Zambia (three) are the only nations to have lifted the trophy in the last seven championships to have been played since 2009.
Two venues are scheduled to be used this year, the Nkoloma and Woodlands stadia in Lusaka, while the pool stage draw has been slated for November 15 in the Zambian capital.
Running through the list of past stars to grace the finals, it reads like a Who’s Who of Southern African football and all will have benefitted from the exposure they got to top level competition.
From a South African perspective, the likes of Itumeleng Khune, Lerato Chabangu, Daine Klate, Elrio van Heerden and Lebohang Mokoena all represented their country at this level and went on to forge successful club and international careers.
Other young stars such as Clifford Mulenga and Isaac Chansa (both Zambia), Tinashe Nengomasha and Onismor Bhasera (both Zimbabwe), as well as Jimmy Zakazaka (Malawi), have used the tournament to persuade clubs outside of their country that they have a bright future in the game.
The tournament was first played in 1983 but was a little-recognised get-together of a few of the stalwarts of the region, including Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Botswana. The Apartheid practices of South Africa at the time meant they were excluded, and only entered the fray for the first time in 1993.
Those early years were dominated by the ‘Two Zs’, with Zambia winning six and Zimbabwe three of the first nine tournaments held. South Africa were the first team to break the mould when they triumphed in 2000, having been losing finalists in 1995 and 1999.
A year earlier, in 1999, they had taken over the hosting of the event, which before then had been spread around the region. Each tournament up until 2009 was held in the Rainbow Nation territory, but the winners were less easy to predict.
Madagascar became only the fourth country to win the event when they surprisingly triumphed in 2005, beating shock finalists Lesotho 1-0 in the final.
Zambia added an 11th title in 2016 when they romped through the competition, defeating hosts South Africa 2-1 in the final.
South Africa regained the trophy in 2017 though after Zambia surprisingly exited in the pool stages, and then defeated Zimbabwe in a penalty shoot-out in 2018 to keep the silverware.
But more than lifting the trophy, the tournament is about developing the talent of tomorrow and giving young players the chance to compete with their peers in a highly competitive environment that should help to prepare them for the challenges of future international football.