South Africa coach Stuart Baxter has hailed the COSAFA Cup as the perfect platform to give youngsters their introduction to international football and points to the success of last year as evidence of this.
Hosts South Africa will be among the favourites for the regional championship again this year when it is played in the Limpopo province from May 27-June 9.
South Africa will be involved in the second week having been handed a bye through the first round and have been drawn against the winner of a Group A that contains Madagascar, Mozambique, Comoros and Seychelles in the quarterfinals.
“The draw has given us a lot of exciting games to look forward to and I’m sure the organisers are smacking their lips at the prospect of the games,” Baxter said.
“In terms of the matches, one thing that makes it very exciting is that this is not a [FIFA] calendar date where we can be guaranteed all of our players, so it throws up a lot of very interesting scenarios.
“We took what was supposed to be an under-strength team to the last COSAFA tournament and yet six of those players went on to secure contracts in the PSL [Premier Soccer League] and today are leading players in the league.
“One of the exciting things for South Africa is that while we may not get all the players we want, we certainly will have a team that we want and a team that we hope can represent South Africa with pride.”
The likes of Tercious Malepe (Ajax Cape Town), Innocent Maela (Orlando Pirates) and Lehlogonolo Masalesa (Platinum Stars)‚ all used the 2017 COSAFA Cup as a springboard to the top league in South Africa. “You have to have the vision to see this tournament as being a special tournament with special challenges, but also with special outcomes, like the six players I just mentioned being very grateful for the COSAFA tournament,” Baxter continued.
Baxter says SAFA now has a clear vision of how they want to approach the COSAFA Cup, but that makes squad selection a little easier.
“I think it’s been more challenging in the previous years because we didn’t really have a clear position on what we want from the tournament. So many times we stumbled into the tournament with an under-strength team investing time in players that won’t probably represent Bafana again,” Baxter said.
“Now the strategy should be clear, we will pick the strongest possible team. At the same time investing time in younger players who we feel will go on to play in the Olympics and maybe Bafana Bafana.
“Therefore, we have a clear picture of what we want now, so I think it makes it less challenging. “I hope we will serve South Africa and SAFA in their vision of moving forward and I hope the co-operation with out clubs will lead to us securing a team that we can be very hopeful with.
“Looking at the opponents, there will be tough games to look forward to and I hope we can embellish the tournament and give South Africans, whether they watch on television or live, something special to talk about.”
South Africa will play their first game at the COSAFA Cup on June 2 against the winner of Group A at the Old Peter Mokaba Stadium (kick-off 17h30). Entrance to all matches during the tournament is FREE.