ZAMBIA's quest to return to the Orange African Youth Championship starts this afternoon when the Keagan Mumba-coached Under-20 soccer squad takes on Mali in the final qualifying round, first leg match at Arthur Davies Stadium in Kitwe.
The junior Chipolopolo will wear black armbands and a moment of silence will be observed before kick-off in honour of former First Lady, Mama Betty Kaunda, the wife of first republican President Kenneth Kaunda, who died in Harare, Zimbabwe on Wednesday.
Zambia last played at the biennial African Youth Championships in 2007 when the George Lwandamina-tutored team reached the semi-finals in the Congo Brazzaville to subsequently qualify for the 2007 FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Canada.
That is the mission Mumba and his charges are relishing, emulating or bettering the performance of the 2007 squad that had the likes of Clifford Mulenga, Fwayo Tembo, Jacob Banda, Nyambe Mulenga, Rodgers Kola, Stoppila Sunzu and William Banda.
This could be a turning point for the current crop of players, some of whom were in the squad that won last year's COSAFA Under-20 championship in Botswana, as they aim to shrug off Mali and advance to next year's tournament in Algeria.
It is the first real test for the Zambia squad that qualified to this stage without kicking a ball following the withdrawal Lesotho and worse, the team has not had international while Mali dispatched 2009 hosts Rwanda 4-2 on aggregate in the previous round.
However, Mumba says his team is competitive because it has an array of tested players like Reynolds 'Sate Sate' Kampamba, Mukuka Mulenga, Moses Phiri and Bruce Musakanya, who feature regularly for their respective team in the MTN Premier League.
"The players are preparing well and their fitness levels are good because the majority of our players play in the local league which is currently on," Mumba, who led the team to COSAFA Cup triumph last year in Botswana, said.
The Zanaco trainer says the most important thing is to get a win from today's match and go for a result in the return match to be played in a fortnight in Mali's capital, Bamako.
"We are not putting any pressure on the boys to score a lot of goals. The most important thing for us is to win and we have to make sure we defend well because Mali is good tactically and they will try to close us down and attack us on the counter," he said.
If the Wednesday's training match against MTN Division One North side Nkwiza is anything to go by then Mumba will deploy a 4-2-3-1 formation with Kampamba leading the onslaught upfront supported by Mukuka Mulenga, Bruce Musakanya and Lusambo 'Kalaba' Musonda.
Shadreck Malambo will play in central midfield while strikers Moses Phiri and Felix Nyaende are likely to start on the bench but will certainly come in handy in case any of the attackers fail to tick.
Sweden-based Peter Mulenga will partner Mwila Mulenga in the heart of defence with Musesha Phiri and Salulani Phiri manning the flanks to provide the necessary protection to Nakambala goalkeeper Moses Mapulanga.
Mali coach Moussa Keita said on arrival at Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe International Airport in Ndola on Thursday that his team has prepared adequately for the encounter and was ready for the showdown.
"We are here for football. It is football and the best team will win. We have prepared for this game just like we do for any team. I don't know much about Zambian football. Let's just wait for the end of the match," Keita said.
The winner over the two-legs will qualify for the 19th edition of the Orange African Youth Championship finals slated for Algeria from March 16 to March 30 next year with the semi-finalists from the continental event advancing to the 2013 FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Turkey.
Zambia - Moses Mapulanga, Musesha Phiri, Salulani Phiri, Peter Mulenga, Mwila Mulenga, Bruce Musakanya, Shadreck Malambo, Reynolds Kampamba, Mukuka Mulenga, Lusambo Musonda.
Mali - Yirango Ally, Berthe Germain, Keita Ousmane, Diarra Boubacar, Traore Mahamadou, Traore Youssouf, Traore Adama, Fofana Hamara, Cisse Mahamane, Samba Diallo, Allasane Diallo.