When the African Under-23 Cup of Nations gets under way in Egypt on Friday there will be two COSAFA entrants in the form of South Africa and Zambia, who can trace the genesis of their rivalry as squads back to the 2016 COSAFA Under-20 Championships.
Ahead of the 2019 installment of the competition, to be played in Lusaka, Zambia from December 4-14, it is worth remembering the huge impact the Under-20 tournament had on both sides three years ago.
South Africa and Zambia will do battle in a Group B encounter in Cairo on Saturday, a Southern African derby to light up the start of the continental championship, which also serves as the qualifiers for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games where three countries from Africa will take part.
This may be an age-group up, but the team’s first crossed swords as a group three years ago, when the core of both sides competed in the regional Under-20 championships. A total of 11 players in the current Zambian Under-23 squad competed three years ago, and it might have been more had others not already moved up to the senior team to be involved in Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers during the current international break.
Goalkeeper Mangani Banda, defenders Moses Nyondo, Prosper Chiluya and Solomon Sakala, midfielders Harrison Chisala, Enock Mwepu and Edward Chilufya, and striker Patson Daka, are just some of the players involved back then.
There is no doubt that the competition, which Zambia won by beating South Africa 2-1 in the final, played a massive role in the elevation of a number of the careers of the Zambian team.
Soon afterwards Daka, Mwepu, Chilufya and Sakala won moves to Europe, and their careers have blossomed as they form part of the senior national team as well. It was truly the moment they ‘arrived’ in international football and the confidence they took from the win provided a psychological boost that led to them riding the wave of success to 2017 Africa Under-20 Championship title and the World Cup in that age-group later in the year.
South Africa also have a number of crossover players, such as goalkeeper Darren Johnson, defenders Tercious Malepe and Thendo Mukumela, midfielders Kobamelo Kodisang, Sipho Mbule and Keletso Makgalwa, and strikers Luther Singh and Itumeleng Shopang.
It would likely have been more had it not been for a reluctance of local clubs to release players for the tournament.
The Zambian group held the upper hand at Under-20 level, not only beating South Africa in the COSAFA Under-20 final, but also months later ousting them in the semifinals of the African Under-20 finals, where they would go on to take gold on home soil.
It all points to the vital nature of COSAFA competitions as developing players for international football and allowing them to play against their peers at age-group levels.
The core of these two squads will likely have many more battles in senior international football over the next decade.