The road to the 2021 FIFA Under-20 World Cup will start for Southern African nations on Thursday with the kick-off of the COSAFA Qualifiers for TOTAL U-20 AFCON, Mauritania 2021 that takes in Nelson Mandela Bay.
Aside from lifting the coveted regional trophy, the aim for teams will be to reach the final and in doing so qualify for the continental competition next year.
From there, the top four sides in Mauritania will win a place at the World Cup, which is scheduled to be held in Indonesia from May 20-June 12, 2021.
The COSAFA tournament is therefore the start of a potentially whirlwind six months for teams, with the African finals in Mauritania scheduled for February 14-March 4.
But for the 11 nations competing in South Africa, that is still a long way off and there is plenty of hard work needed to come out in the top two in their region first.
The sides have been split into three pools, Groups A and B containing four teams and Group C three.
The top team in each pool will advance to the semifinals, as well as the best-placed runner-up.
In order to calculate the runner-up position fairly, the results against the teams that finish bottom in Groups A and B will be disregarded, providing a level playing field for the teams in Group C.
Hosts South Africa get their campaign under way on Thursday with a Group A meeting against old foe Zimbabwe (kick-off 15h30), who return to the competition in 2020 after missing out last year.
South Africa, along with Zambia, have been a dominant force in this age-group over the years and were winners in 2017 and 2018, before giving up their crown last year, though they still made the final.
Coach Helman Mkhalele had brought in a number of new players for this year’s competition and is pleased with the group he has been able to assemble.
“I am very happy with the squad that we have assembled for this year’s COSAFA tournament,” Mkhalele said.
“None of this would have been possible if it was not for the tremendous support we had received for various clubs in releasing their players for this camp. For that, we are truly grateful as it enabled us with enough time to prepare and work with the players leading up to this crucial event.
“There are two things that we want to get out from this tournament. And that is: we want to qualify for next year’s U-20 AFCON tournament by reaching this year’s COSAFA final and also win the COSAFA Championship.”
Opening up the tournament on Thursday will be the first game in Group A that sees Mozambique tackle Lesotho (12h30).
In what is likely to be a tough group, this will be a vital game to win for both sides and looks an evenly-contested clash, even if
Lesotho have enjoyed the greater recent joy in this competition with a place in the 2017 final.
This will be a completely changed side though and it may be a case of who can shake off the rust quickest that comes out on top.
Group B contains Malawi, Comoros, Namibia and defending champions Zambia, while Group C has Angola, Eswatini and Botswana.
All matches will be streamed live on www.cosafa.tv, while the semifinals finals and final will be on SuperSport. The decider will be played on December 13.