The 2018 COSAFA Women’s Championship gets under way in Nelson Mandela Bay on Wednesday as the best of Southern, Central and East Africa clash in what promises to be a hugely entertaining 10 days of action.
Cameroon and Uganda will add some spice to the line-up that includes 12 teams, all vying to depose hosts South Africa as champions of the regional competition.
It is arguably the best field ever assembled for the COSAFA competition and a sign not only of the region’s ability to draw top talent, but also the growth of women’s football in Southern Africa.
South Africa have assembled their strongest squad, so too fellow African Women’s Championship qualifiers Zambia and Cameroon, while Zimbabwe are a traditional power in the region too.
That quartet will likely be favourites for the title, but among the remaining eight sides there are plenty who could rise to the challenge and spring a surprise.
“We must commend COSAFA for putting together such a powerful field of 12 teams, this will provide great competition for all the countries,” South Africa coach Desiree Ellis said. “It is going to be very tough to defend our title and we cannot take any team for granted, so we are looking forward to a great competition. We will be ready and for us there is the obvious goal as well of preparing for the African Women’s Championship as well.
“We have seen tremendous growth in recent years in this region and I am excited to see how the competition unfolds.”
South Africa open their Group A campaign on Wednesday against Madagascar at the Wolfson Stadium at 15h30 (13h30 GMT).
“It is important we make a good start to set the tone for the rest of the group play, but we know Madagascar are an enterprising team and we will have to be at our best.” Before that is the opening clash of the tournament as Botswana take on Malawi in Group A at the same venue at 10h00 (08h00 GMT).
This will be a crucial first clash for both sides if they have ambition of reaching the semifinals, with only the top team in each pool and the best-placed runner-up advancing to the knockout stages.
"I am confident that we are not going just to add numbers but to comp
ete,” Botswana coach Gaoletlhoo Nkutlusang said. " I am comfortable with any country that we play against.”
It is a sentiment echoed by her Malawi counterpart Maggie Chombo-Sadik, who has targeted the top prize.
“I am sure that the experience I gained last year during the COSAFA Women’s Championship in Zimbabwe will come handy this time,” she said. “As a pioneer of women’s football in the country, I am ready for this challenge. Having played women’s football, it feels good to be at the helm of the national team.
“We beat Madagascar 6-3 last year, but we must not be complacent. Botswana are also a good team, but they are coming from a long break. South Africa are obviously strong in attack, so we need to be careful with our defending.”
The other match on the opening day sees Group C rivals Swaziland and Uganda clash, also at the Wolfson Stadium at 13h00 (11h00 GMT).
Uganda are fresh from a runners-up spot at the CECAFA Women’s Championship and are eager to impress against what is arguably a tougher field.
“It is such a good opportunity for us to be invited to the COSAFA Women’s Championship and we will do our best to improve our game,” Uganda coach Faridah Bulega said.
“It is our first time and we know there are many strong teams in the field, but we will do our best and any positive results that come our way we will truly appreciate.
“It is a difficult draw for us, but any of the 11 teams we could have got would have presented a challenge.”
South Africa are the defending champions in the COSAFA Women’s Championship having claimed the title last year with a 2-1 win over Zimbabwe in the final in Bulawayo.
They have won four of the five previous tournaments played, with their run broken only by Zimbabwe, who claimed the title on home soil in 2011, beating South Africa in the final.