The 2017 COSAFA Under-20 Championships are set to light up Zambia from December 6-16 in what will be the latest instalment of the vital regional tournament that has been a breeding ground for so much Southern African talent down the years.
The tournament will be staged in Kitwe as defending champions Zambia seek to retain the title they won in South Africa last year, the start of a magnificent run for the side that saw them also later crowned African champions and star at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in South Korea.
They will likely have a new wave of talent for the coming tournament, as will most sides in the region as they look to build for future continental finals. In that regard, the COSAFA Under-20 Championship is vital and has played its part in its many guises down the years.
Running through the list of past stars to grace the finals, it reads like a Who’s Who of Southern African football and all will have benefitted from the exposure they got to top level competition.
From a South African perspective, the likes of Itumeleng Khune, Lerato Chabangu, Daine Klate, Elrio van Heerden and Lebohang Mokoena all represented their country at this level and gone on to forge successful club and international careers.
Other young stars such as Clifford Mulenga and Isaac Chansa (both Zambia), Tinashe Nengomasha and Onismor Bhasera (both Zimbabwe), as well as Jimmy Zakazaka (Malawi), have used the tournament to persuade clubs outside of their country that they have a bright future in the game.
The tournament was first played in 1983, but was a little-recognised get-together of a few of the stalwarts of the region, including Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Botswana. The Apartheid practices of South Africa at the time meant they were excluded, and only entered the fray for the first time in 1993.
Those early years were dominated by the ‘Two Zs’, with Zambia winning six and Zimbabwe three of the first nine tournaments held. South Africa were the first team to break the mould when they triumphed in 2000, having been losing finalists in 1995 and 1999.
A year earlier, in 1999, they had taken over the hosting of the event, which before then had been spread around the region. Each tournament up until 2009 was held in the Rainbow Nation, but the winners were less easy to predict.
Madagascar became only the fourth country to win the event when they surprisingly triumphed in 2005, beating shock finalists Lesotho 1-0 in the final. Before Lesotho three years ago, the previous two instalments, in 2010 and 2011, were hosted by Botswana, with Zambia extending their winning streak to three with success in both.
They added an 11th title in 2016 when they romped through the competition, defeating hosts South Africa 2-1 in the final.
But more than lifting the trophy, the tournament is about developing the talent of tomorrow and giving young players the chance to compete with their peers in a highly-competitive environment that should help to prepare them for the challenges of future international football.
2000 South Africa
2004 South Africa
2006 South Africa
2008 South Africa
2013 South Africa
11 – Zambia
6 – Zimbabwe
5 – South Africa
1 – Madagascar