South Africa and Zambia embark on their quest for a place in at the Olympic Games next year when they start their campaign in the Africa Under-23 Cup of Nations in Senegal this weekend.
The COSAFA pair, who have both been drawn in Group A at the finals, must finish in the top three in order to claim a place in Rio de Janeiro.
South Africa take on Senegal in their pool opener at the Stade Léopold Sédar Senghor in Dakar on Saturday, with Zambia up against Tunisia later in the day.
And there will be plenty of confidence in both camps that this is achievable afer a long time away from that stage. Zambia were last at the men’s football tournament at the Olympics in 1988 and South Africa made their one and only appearance in 2000.
South Africa coach Owen da Gama believes his players have the ability to go all the way and says the hard work ahead of the tournament has been put into their mental preparation.
“It is history for us and the players know it,” he said. “Should things go our way then the players they will go down in history as the second South African team to have qualified for the Olympic Games.
“The fact that we have reached a tournament of the best on the continent already means a lot and is something to smile about. We are carrying the national flag and we have to do it for the 52 million South Africans, and these players are proud to be doing that for the nation.
“In our last camp the theme was about mental strength. We have prepared them for the worst possible scenario in Senegal. These boys have proven that intimidation does not work with them.
“They are also streetwise because they come from difficult backgrounds and understand all these things. They have played on fields without grass, in extreme heat and anything you can think of. So we just have to go there and compete and do our best,” added Da Gama.
Zambia coach Fighton Simukonda says Group A is a tough one to call.
“All opponents are worthy competitors so each game must be taken very seriously. We are happy with the reception and the weather is fine,” he said.
Group B contains Egypt, Algeria, Mali and Nigeria.