Swaziland were desperately unlucky not to make the quarterfinals of the COSAFA Castle Cup last year, but coach Harris Bulunga is hoping to use that disappointment to fuel his team’s charge at the 2016 tournament to be held in Namibia from June 11-25.
Swaziland beat both Lesotho and guest nation Tanzania in their first round pool 12 months ago, but a 1-1 draw with Madagascar saw the island nation pip them to top spot in the group on goal-difference.
It meant Swaziland went home despite being unbeaten in the tournament, but Bulunga says they do have good memories from the COSAFA Castle Cup in South Africa.
“It was memorable for us, you could say we performed in a way beyond the expectations of the nation, especially as we had just four days in camp before tournament and people had written us off,” Bulunga said.
“We were unfortunately to miss out on goal-difference, but we were pleased with our performances and carried that momentum into the African Nations Cup qualifiers that followed.
“We are in a position where we can still qualify for the Nations Cup finals in Gabon and that ground-work was laid at the COSAFA Castle Cup last year.
“We missed out on the World Cup qualifiers when we lost 2-0 on aggregate to Nigeria, but that shows you we are able to run the so-called powerhouses of the continent close and be competitive.
“That is what we hope to bring to the COSAFA Castle Cup in Namibia this year.”
Bulunga suggests there will not be too many changes to the squad that has done duty over the past 12 months, but says they must also plan for the future and the COSAFA Castle Cup is the perfect platform to do that.
“We don’t have a large pool of players to pick from and so we may try and give some of the players from the Under-23 team a taste of what it is like to play in a big international tournament.
“We have had pretty much the same team for the past two years and with one or two players coming to the end of their careers, we don’t want to be caught out further down the line, there must be some sort of succession planning in place.
“The COSAFA Castle Cup is the perfect stage for us to bring in new blood against very good quality opposition and in the pressure of a tournament where the stakes are high.”
Bulunga is pleased the event will be staged in Namibia, where he says the facilities will make for an entertaining tournament.
“We have been there quite a bit and they have very good facilities and good stadiums in Windhoek. We played at the Independence Stadium there, which has an artificial surface, and that is fine for us because it is something we are used to. We will have no problem adapting to the conditions.”
Bulunga has also welcomed the inclusion of DR Congo as a guest nation at the COSAFA Castle Cup this year.
“They are a top-quality team, one of the best in Africa, and those are the types of games you want your players to play in. Hopefully we have a chance to meet them in the competition at some stage because it will be a great learning curve for us.
“I am sure they will bring a very strong squad and they will go all out to win the trophy, that is the mind-set they have.”
Bulunga feels that Swaziland football is on the up and that they can one day be a side that qualifies regularly for major continental finals.
“Domestically we are doing well and improving the number of tournaments our players are exposed to and that added competition is, in my opinion, bearing fruit for the national team, as we have seen over the last year.
“As a national side we have been making good strides and are heading towards our goal of being one of the more recognised teams in Africa.
“A competition like the COSAFA Castle Cup id vital for us to achieve that goal and we are very thankful that we are able to take our place in Namibia to show the watching world the progress we have made.”
Swaziland have twice finished third at the COSAFA Castle Cup, in 1999 and 2002, and also had a third-place finish at the tournament in 2003.