Defending champions Zambia and East African guest nation Kenya kick-off the 2016 COSAFA Under-17 Championships at the Stade St Francois Xavier in Port Louis, Mauritius on Friday with both aiming to be in the final come July 31.
The opening Group B fixture kicks off at 12h00 local time (08h00 GMT), with the second match between Malawi and Madagascar to be played at 15h00 (11h00 GMT) at the same venue.
The regional championship in the Under-17 age-group returns for the first time in 18 months when Zambia claimed the title after a 3-0 victory hosts Zimbabwe in the final that was played as part of the African Union Sports Commission (AUSC) Region 5 Youth Games in Bulawayo.
This year the event is being staged in the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius, with teams also using it as vital preparation for the African Under-17 Championship qualifiers that take centre-stage a week after the final.
Zambia will be among the favourites given their rich history of competing in COSAFA events, from the Under-17s through to the senior COSAFA Castle Cup and captain Daniel Kunda says they are hopeful of going home with the trophy again.
“We have prepared adequately for the tournament. I know it will be tough but we are ready to do our best so that the trophy comes back to Zambia,” Kunda told reporters.
“It is our first time to play at an international tournament and I am sure we are more than ready for the challenge. We will emulate our colleagues who lifted the trophy in Zimbabwe.”
Kenyan counterpart Prince Korasei Boit told local radio his side were equally keen to leave an impression on the tournament.
“We are excited because this is the first ever assignment we are undertaking as team,” Boit said. “We view this as a good opportunity for us to get exposed, learn from some of the continent’s best as we prepare for Cameroon. It will not be an easy outing but we have to do our best.”
Kenya are led by German coach Andres Spier, who also acts as Football Kenya Federation Technical Director.
Madagascar have a particular interest in doing well at the COSAFA Under-17 Championships as they will host the 2017 African Under-17 Championships next year and will want to do well on home soil.
The journey to that tournament starts in Mauritius but they know they will be up against a formidable opponent in the Young Flames.
Only the top two sides in each pool advance to the semifinals of the competition. Group A, which gets under way on Saturday, features hosts Mauritius, South Africa, Seychelles and Namibia.