The 2017 COSAFA Castle Cup kicks-off at the Moruleng Stadium in South Africa’s North West province on Sunday with a double-header of matches that are sure to rocket the competition off to a thrilling start.
East African guest nation Tanzania will take on Malawi in the opening fixture at 15h00 (13h00 GMT), seeking a first ever victory in what is now their third appearance in the Southern African regional championship.
Later on one of the pre-tournament favourites Angola will seek to put recent past disappointments behind them when they face Mauritius at 17h30 (15h30 GMT).
The COSAFA Castle Cup is celebrating 20-years in this campaign and so it is perhaps fitting that Tanzania, who also featured in the inaugural competition in 1997, return for another shot at the silverware.
Coach Salum Mayanga has selected a strong squad, including Qatar-based forward Elias Maguli and Thomas Ulimwengu, who plays in Sweden. Those are the only two foreign-based players as Mayanga casts an eye to the African Nations Championship (CHAN) qualifiers that are scheduled for a week after the COSAFA Castle Cup final.
Tanzania face-off against Rwanda in a two-legged tie that sees only home-based players available for selection. By contrast, Malawi are already out of those qualifiers and Belgian coach Ronny van Geneugden had hoped to use a number of his overseas stars in this competition.
But as the tournament falls outside of the FIFA match calendar, The Flames battled to get their players released from their clubs, and so enter the tournament with a fresh-looking squad that will be hungry to prove themselves. This will be second meeting between the two sides in the COSAFA Castle Cup, with the first in the inaugural competition all the way back in 1997.
That match finished in a 2-2 draw in Lilongwe after Tanzania had twice taken the lead through Idelphonce Amlima and Victor Bambo in the first half. But goals from Lovemore Fazili and Jones Nkhwazi sealed a point for The Flames.
In the later game on Sunday, Angola have assembled a much more experienced squad than the one that exited the COSAFA Castle Cup last year with no goals and no points.
New Brazilian coach Roberto Bianchi is looking ahead to CHAN as well where, coincidentally, his side face Mauritius in their next round of qualifiers.
Sunday’s match therefore serves as a vital fact-finding mission for both sides in preparation for that tie, which is just weeks away.
Mauritius are looking to overcome the disappointment of being knocked out of the African Nations Cup qualifiers by Comoros in March, and a run deep into the COSAFA Castle Cup will do their confidence a great deal of good.
Coach Joe Tshupula returns for another shot at the title after leading the side last year and as ever there is pre-tournament hope that Club M can begin to fulfil their potential on the Southern African scene.
They have only twice before made the quarterfinals since their first appearance in 2000.
This will be fourth meeting between the two sides in the COSAFA Castle Cup, with the first in Luanda in 2001.
That game finished 1-0 in favour of Angola, who also won their second clash 5-1 in Maseru in 2006. Fabrice Akwa grabbed a hat-trick in that fixture. The previous meeting between the nations was actually the last in the COSAFA Castle Cup for both these sides – their final group game in Windhoek last year. Mauritius grabbed a 2-0 victory over a very young Angolan side.
That is part of a four-game losing streak for Angola in the competition, all defeats coming without them managing to net a single goal. Their last win came in a 3-2 success over Malawi in Kitwe, Zambia in 2013.