For five of the sides competing at the 2019 COSAFA Women’s Championship in Nelson Mandela Bay, there is much more than a trophy and regional pride at stake.
The quintet will also be looking ahead to the qualifiers for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, which resume just a few weeks after the final the COSAFA tournament, meaning it will provide vital preparation for the crucial preliminary fixtures.
Hosts South Africa, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana will all be using the championship to fine-tune their tactics ahead of the qualifiers – as well as run a final eye over prospective squad members.
The same is true for two of the teams competing in the inaugural 2019 COSAFA Women’s Under-20 Championships, as the event ends a week before the start of the 2019 All Africa Games.
And for the rest there are the 2020 FIFA Under-20 World Cup qualifiers to come later in the year as they seek to win a place on the greatest stage of all at this age-group level.
So there is much to play for in Nelson Mandela Bay, with the senior event to run from July 31-August 11, and the Under-20s from August 1-11.
COSAFA’s mandate has always been one of providing platforms for teams to not only showcase their quality, but also prepare for continental and global qualifiers in a highly-competitive environment.
The quality of the build-up is crucial in earning success at the end of the day, as South Africa coach Des Ellis knows all too well. “We have always used the COSAFA Cup to blood in new faces and it will be no different this year. You have the Olympics qualifiers coming up, practically a week after the tournament,” Ellis said.
“It’s almost the start of the next four-year circle, if you look at it, because you cannot start in two or three years from now to prepare. You must start now to give new players enough game time. “We have done it in the past, in the 2017 edition we had 10 players making their debuts. Last year again, we did give a few players international caps.”
Ellis says she will be hamstrung to some extent as she must allow the Under-20 side the chance to prepare properly for their continental qualifiers. “Bearing in mind that the U-20 team are also playing at this year’s COSAFA Cup, it will be difficult to call as many youngsters as one would have wished.
“We will sit down as coaches first, to find out which players must be utilised because you do not want to under-value the Under-20 team, bearing in mind that they will also be playing the Africa Games soon. So, you want to make sure that it is an even balanced process.”
South Africa will take on Botswana in their Olympic qualifier, while Zimbabwe and Zambia clash as well.
Malawi will meet East African side Kenya, with all the matches scheduled to take place around August 26 and September 1. There is every chance that the teams in the first two fixtures could clash at this year’s COSAFA Women’s Championship, providing a real close-up view of how the Olympic qualifiers may pan out.
Just one team from Africa is guaranteed a place at the Olympics this year, with the team that loses in the qualification final to take on a team from South American region in a play-off fixture for the right to go to Japan.
The South African and Zambian Under-20 sides have already sealed their places at the All Africa Games in Morocco next month, where they have been drawn together in the pool stages. They have been kept apart in the first round draw for the COSAFA Women’s Under-20 Championships, but could clash in the knockout stages, which again would give them a close-up view of one another before the Moroccan tournament.
Zambia Under-20 coach Charles Halubono says they have pleased with their preparations to date, and that the additional of a team in this age-group will help grow women’s football in the country.
“It’s very important to have a Under-20 team as you know we have to have proper progression. Having the Under-20 will help with that gradual process,” he told reporters.
“We happy with the response of the players so far in training. We have a final 20 [to select] but all the girls are working very hard and we are happy with how they are doing,” he added.