Malawi national team will have to engage an extra gear in its quest to reach the Cosafa Under-17 Youth Championship knock-out stage this afternoon against Botswana’s Diamond Zebras in Group B encounter at Gelvandale Stadium in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
Despite having a better head-to-head record over Botswana, the team left for the tournament on Wednesady barely five days after 10 key players were dropped after failing the Magnetic Resource Imaging (MRI) test—the test used to verify players’ age.
Names of the players were not disclosed as Football Association of Malawi (FAM) said it is confidential.
FAM youth developement officer James Sangala was quoted by The Daily Times last week as having said that three of the four goalkeepers failed the test. The midfield and defence were also affected.
But the coach DeKlerk Msakakuona sounded optimistic when asked on his team’s chances of collecting maximum points.
He said: “I know whoever we are going to give a chance to play will deliver. We know the importance of this tournament because it is an Afcon qualifier.
“We know for sure that results will come if they play to enjoy the game. But at the end of the day, our wish is to go beyond the group stages and qualify for the Afcon finals.”
Botswana is returning to the Under-17 Cosafa Championship after missing the last edition which Malawi hosted.
Coach Tebogo Mokute described their non-participation as tactical to allow time to assemble the team in 2019 and build a strong base for the 2020 edition.
The coach believes that his team has gained experience in the past year which will allow them to hold their own as they face Malawi.
However, reaching the semi-finals is not just what is at stake as the Cosafa Youth Championship is also a zonal qualifier for Confederation of Africa Football (CAF) Under-17 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) as the winners and runners-up will make it to the 2021 finals in Morocco..
But history is not on the junior Flames’ side, who last qualified for the continental showpiece in 2009, Msakakuona and his charges have for the past three editions failed to make it past the group stage.
Ironically, the last time the team made it to the semi-finals was in 2017 in Mauritius, then Malawi was also in the same group with Botswana whom they beat 2-0, Zimbabwe 5-0 and Mauritius 2-0.
However, the junior Flames were denied a final berth following a 2-0 loss to Zambia, but went on to win bronze after beating South Africa 2-1.
That was the last time the Under-17 made the nation proud as they had been failing to reach the knock-out stages.
In 2018, Malawi beat Zimbabwe 5-0 and e-Swatini(formerly Swaziland)1-0 in the pool stages, but a 1-0 loss to eventual champions Angola meant they did not make the semi-finals.
In 2019, despite a 3-0 victory over South Africa in their opener, Malawi lost to e-Swatini (formerly Swaziland) 2-1 and Zambia 3-2 to exit in the first round on home soil.
The Diamond Zebras’ previous best finishes in the regional showpiece came in 2009 and 2011 when they won bronze on both occassions. But this is a new generation of players under Mokute.
Malawi’s second fixture is against defending champions Zambia on Monday and their last group phase match will be on November 25 against Comoros.
Two top teams from each group will qualify for the semi-finals.