By Martin Chawanzi
Namibia are a late withdrawal from the 2018 MOPANI Copper Mines COSAFA Under-20 Championships in Kitwe, Zambia, precipitating a change in format for the competition that will now have one group with only three teams.
The regional championships are set for lift-off on Sunday and run to December 14 as eleven teams compete for the coveted title that was won last year South Africa.
Namibia cited financial constraints in their decision, a bitter disappointment for the nation who also missed out on the 2016 finals for the same reason.
It means that Group B at the tournament will have just three sides, South Africa, Mauritius and eSwatini, with each team to feature in one less fixture in their pool play.
“We are obviously very disappointed following the withdrawal of Namibia, who were our Under-17 winners in 2016 and likely to bring a strong squad to this championship in Zambia,” said Timothy Shongwe, Chairman of COSAFA’s Competitions Committee.
“Nevertheless, we still have an exciting field and are looking forward to another excellent tournament in Zambia filled with entertaining football, and the chance for growth and development for the best young players in our region.
“We thank our Zambian hosts and our valued partners in Mopani Copper Mines for their continued support of Under-20 football in Southern Africa.”
Despite Namibia’s withdrawal, the tournament regulations will remain the same, meaning realistically though that only the top team in Group B will advance to the semifinals. The winners of each pool and the best runner-up go through to the knockout phase, but the latter will in all likelihood only come from Groups A and C.
Hosts Zambia are the top seed in Group A and open their campaign on Sunday against Central African guest nation DR Congo at the Nkana Stadium (kick-off 15h00).
After a disappointing first round exit on home soil last year, they will be keen to make amends and regain the title they last won two years ago.
Malawi and Mozambique clash in the other fixture in the pool at 11h00, which also serves as the tournament opener.
Both teams will know that a positive start is needed if they are to challenge at the top of what is a very tough group.
The other match on Sunday is the opener in Group C between Lesotho and Angola (13h00) at Shinde Stadium in Mufulira.
Both have been strong performers in this competition in the past, with Lesotho beaten finalists last year as they went down 2-1 to South Africa in the decider.
Zimbabwe and Botswana are the other sides in Group C and they will open their campaign on Monday at Nkana Stadium, while South Africa tackle Mauritius at the same venue at 15h30