South Africa coach Helman Mkhalele will gather his squad on Sunday for the start of their preparations towards the 2020 COSAFA Men’s Under-20 Championship that will be played in Nelson Mandela Bay from December 3-13.
The tournament serves as a zonal qualifier for the African Under-20 Cup of Nations that is slated for Mauritania next year, with the two finalists earning their berth at the continental showpiece.
Mkhalele led South Africa to the final of the regional competition last year, where they were well beaten by Zambia in the decider, the Young Chipolopolo running out 3-0 victors.
The coach will hope that experience has battle-hardened his side, as he goes with continuity with the likes of the Kaizer Chiefs trio of Bontle Molefe, Rahim Milazi and Keletso Sifama all survivors of that 2019 squad.
South Africa are the seeded team in Group A but have a tough pool to navigate.
They open their campaign against Zimbabwe on Dec. 3, before a clash with Lesotho three days later. They end their pool play against Mozambique on Dec. 8.
Only the pool winners and the best-placed runner-up advance to the knockout stages.
South Africa have traditionally been one of the powerhouses in the region in Under-20 football and will be looking to regain the crown they last won in 2018.
They have claimed the competition eight times in all, with their first title coming in 2000. They also hosted the tournament for 11 consecutive years between 1999 and 2009.
They went all the way to the final on home soil in 2016, playing some scintillating football, but lost out to Zambia in the decider with a 2-1 defeat.
That was seen as a major disappointment, but they atoned for that with a run all the way to the gold medal in 2017.
After topping their pool with a full haul of nine points, ‘Amajita’ edged North African guest nation Egypt 1-0 in the semifinals.
That set up a decider with Lesotho and South African emerged as 2-1 winners to take home the trophy.
They repeated that triumph in 2018, topping their shortened pool with victories over Mauritius and Eswatini, before a 1-0 win over Angola in the semifinals.
That set up a final with old foes Zimbabwe and after the match finished 1-1, South Africa claimed the penalty shoot-out 4-3.
They could not repeat the feat last year though as eased into the final, but were outplayed by Zambia in the decider.
The side have qualified for the Africa Under-20 Cup of Nations on eight previous occasions, winning the silver medal in 1997. They finished third in 2019, and also have two fourth-place finishes (2009 and 2017).