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Just what is the role of competitions such as the Cosafa Cup in the international game?

Just what is the role of competitions such as the Cosafa Cup in the international game?
South Africa's Victor Letsoalo on the run during a 2021 Cosafa Cup match against Lesotho at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. (Photo: Samuel Shivambu / BackpagePix)

A competition such as southern Africa’s Cosafa Cup might be viewed as having little value on an already busy international football calendar, but players see things very differently.

Manchester City and Belgium star midfielder Kevin De Bruyne recently spoke out against Europe’s Uefa Nations League, saying the tournament was “not important”.

“We have to play these games, but it feels like a campaign of friendly games. Just glorified friendlies after a long and tough season. I’m not looking forward to it,” said the 30-year-old.

“But it’s not only playing games, it’s the training, it’s the travelling, it’s everything. Sometimes you go away and travel, but you do not play. It’s even exhausting,” he later told The Independent.

The Nations League was established by European football’s governing UEFA as a means to eliminate the usually dull, drawn-out and uncompetitive international friendlies – which football fans love to hate.

To counter this loathing, UEFA devised a tournament version of international friendlies. However, as De Bruyne highlights, to the players – especially the senior players who are vital cogs for club and country – the concept can be physically taxing.

Welcome to Africa

East, West and Central Africa have had regional senior international tournaments in the past. In East and Central Africa they have faded into oblivion 0ver the years, while the West African version – the WAFU Cup of Nations – was last played in 2019.

Micium Mhone of Malawi in action during a Cosafa Cup match against Lesotho at King Zwelithini Stadium in Durban on 6 July 2022. (Photo: Darren Stewart / Gallo Images)

Only southern Africa’s Cosafa Cup (named after the Council of Southern Africa Football Associations) has been a relative constant since its inception in 1997 (financial struggles forced it to halt for three years between 2010 and 2013 and the 2020 edition was cancelled owing to Covid-19).

Interestingly, the North Africans have never bothered to conceptualise such an international tournament for senior men’s football. This is despite the region’s constant dominance of African men’s football – at international and club level – over the decades.    

Launching pad

However, according to one of the players in the 2022 edition representing South Africa – the defending champions after clinching the title on home soil in 2021 – playing for your country is always a joyful experience.

Rowan Human, Maritzburg United’s 21-year-old midfielder, earned a maiden move abroad in 2019, after turning out for South Africa’s Under-20 side in the Cosafa Cup during 2019.

He signed for Israeli club Maccabi Tel Aviv on a one-year deal. Though the move eventually didn’t work out in the long-term, the former Bidvest Wits player says he is grateful for the opportunity to don South Africa’s colours once again, adding that he is hopeful the platform will make the dream of moving abroad a reality once again.

“Opportunities for one to earn a move abroad come when you’re playing for your national team,” Human said.

“Most scouts make the effort to follow all of these international matches or tournaments and scout the best possible talents that would fit in well in their respective clubs. It is always important for one to give it their best, because you never know who is watching. I intend to do exactly that in this year’s edition.”

He also pointed out the link to the U20 squad who finished runners-up to Zambia in 2019, and the current Bafana Bafana squad present at the Cosafa Cup.

“It is always good to represent your country, regardless of the age group,” said Human, who has nine Amajita caps to his name.

“Some of the players who played in that Cosafa Under-20 Championship are also part of this current group of Bafana Bafana players. This shows that there’s been growth in our respective developments and individual careers, and I’m really pleased with that.”

Also pleased with his growth since appearing at previous junior Cosafa tournaments is Orlando Pirates starlet Boitumelo Radiopane. The 19-year-old is keen to get a taste of the demands of senior international football.

“This is not my first Cosafa tournament, having last featured in the 2018 Under-17 men’s Championship edition,” Radiopane said. “We lost to Angola in the final and no one was happy with that outcome. I for one have since grown from it, hence I am here.”

The squad representing South Africa is relatively inexperienced at senior international level, with 21-year-old AmaZulu midfielder Ethan Brooks the most experienced (capped nine times).

Though it is unlikely considering the competition in the senior side proper, players such as Radiopane will be out to grab their chance and emulate the likes of Brooks, Veli Mothwa, Bongokuhle Hlongwane and Rushine de Reuck.

The latter four have been a mainstay in Bafana coach Hugo Broos’s squads since impressing in 2021 as the team won the regional title.  

Robyn Kimberly Moodaly of South Africa passes during the team’s Cosafa Women’s Championship clash with Mozambique at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on 4 October 2021. (Photo: Richard Huggard / Gallo Images)

“The selection process for the Bafana Bafana squad has not been an easy one, because there were a whole lot of talented players to choose from in the provisional squad,” Radiopane said.

“I am just grateful to be here and my focus now is to do well for the nation in this tournament, starting with the Mozambique game. I take my opportunities very seriously, and you can bet that, should I be given the nod to play, I’m going to make full use of it.”  

Where is Broos?

The absence of the senior men’s coach for the tournament has also drawn the ire of South African football fans and some former players.

One of Broos’s assistants, Helman Mkhalele, was tasked with leading this crop of players, who are under the age of 23.

According to Broos’s employers at the South African Football Association (SAFA), he is not mandated to coach in the Cosafa Cup or African Nations Championship (not to be confused with the Africa Cup of Nations).

“In terms of his contract, he’s not coaching during the Cosafa and African Nations Championship. Even last year he [Broos] wasn’t the coach at the Cosafa Cup,” said SAFA CEO Tebogo Motlanthe.

These decisions emphasise the notion that such regional tournaments, in an already packed international calendar, add little value overall. Though the likes of Human and Radiopane would be quick to disagree. DM

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