Zambia coach George Chilufya says his preparations for the 2020 COSAFA Men’s Under-17 Championships are on track as the team seeks to retain the title they won in Malawi 12 months ago.
This year’s competition will be staged in South Africa’s Nelson Mandela Bay and played from November 19-29, with the additional carrot of qualification for the 2021 CAF Under-17 Africa Cup of Nations for the two finalists.
Chilufya had initially called up a massive provisional squad of 46 players, but has been whittling down his options at their training camp at the Barca Academy.
“So far so good, everyone is pushing. All the boys we called in camp are here. The boys are pushing. We have a few days remaining. It is quite encouraging. The competition is high in camp,” he told reporters.
“We just hope to get the best out of them in the few days that we have remained with them.”
Zambia are the seeded team in Group B and will face Malawi, Botswana and Comoros in their bid for a place in the semifinals. The top two teams in each pool advance to the next stage.
“It’s a fair group, but in the tournament the first game [against Comoros on Nov. 20] is always important and all our efforts are towards the first game, because that will give us direction.
“We are going there as defending champions. It’s obvious that everyone is ready for us, so we have to be as good as we were last time but we need to do more. But the target is that we top the group and see what follows.”
The coach admits that aside from retaining the trophy, the team will be under pressure to make the continental finals.
“This is a challenge and everyone knows that we are not just going there for COSAFA, but to get qualification into the Afcon. So the importance has been put across, everyone is aware and ultimately we have to go for the Afcon.”
Zambia have been regular participants in the COSAFA Men’s Under-17 Championships down the years, and won their second title in Malawi last year.
They picked up a bronze in their first appearance in 1994, defeating Namibia (5-0) and Malawi (3-0) in the pool stages to go with draws against South Africa (1-1) and Eswatini (0-0).
They came unstuck in the semifinals though after a 2-1 loss to Mozambique, but rallied to beat Zimbabwe 1-0 in the third-place play-off.
They played just a single pool game in 2001, a 3-0 victory over Lesotho, before losing 5-4 to Malawi in the semifinals. Again they took home the bronze with a 2-0 victory over Eswatini.
They did not play in 2002, but returned in 2007 and once more had to settle for bronze. A 1-1 draw with Malawi was followed by an 8-0 success over Botswana to see them top their pool.
Zimbabwe were their semi-final opponents and after a 1-1 draw, it was The Baby Warriors who triumphed 5-4 on penalties. Zambia beat Malawi 1-0 in the third-place play-off.
The team were disqualified from the 2016 event for fielding two over-age players, but returned a year later to lift their maiden crown.
They advanced into the knockout stages with wins over Madagascar (7-1) and South Africa (3-2), and despite a 1-0 loss to Mozambique.
After a 2-0 semifinal win, Zambia completed a comprehensive 3-0 victory over hosts Mauritius in the final to take gold.
They could not defend that title in 2018 though as the team surprisingly exited in the first round. A 0-0 draw with Mozambique was followed by a 1-0 win over Lesotho, but their fate was sealed by a 2-1 loss to South Africa.
They romped to the trophy last year, recording wins over Eswatini (6-0), South Africa (7-0) and Malawi (3-2) in the pool stages, followed by a 2-0 victory over Angola in the semifinals, and a win by the same scoreline in the final against Mozambique.
Zambia have only appeared at the African Under-17 Championships once before, making their debut in 2015, but bowing out in the first round.