Reigning Cosafa champions Namibia could not have hoped for a better entrance into the defence of their title when the knockout stages of the regional tourney gets underway this weekend.
Hosts Namibia go toe to toe against old foes Botswana in the first quarterfinal of the Cosafa Cup at the Sam Nujoma Stadium in Windhoek, tomorrow afternoon at 15h00.
The two-week regional tourney reaches its climax after the boys have been separated from the men in marathon group matches that produced an avalanche of goals, including surprises, with Swaziland booking a place in the quarterfinals against South Africa at the expense of former champions Zimbabwe.
Given no hope and considered as also-rans in last year’s competition, the Brave Warriors surprised friend and foe when they brushed aside their opponents to clinch the regional trophy for the first time, with football becoming the first sports code to win a regional competition in the history of Namibian sport.
Now playing at home as defending champions, Ricardo Mannetti’s soldiers will go into the 14-nation tournament as one of the lowest ranked competitors at number 10, but their potential opponents would be better advised not to read too much into those statistics or rather do so at their own peril.
Interestingly, Warriors head coach Manneti is a man spoilt for choice with the timely arrival of inspirational skipper Stigga Ketjijere and free-scoring gangling striker Peter Shalulile.
Initially, there was uncertainty over the availability of the pair with both players engaged in urgent assignments with their South African clubs vying for promotion to that country’s elite league.
But with the play-offs out of the way, the pair have been released by their respective clubs and are now eligible for selection although their clubs still have one match each of convenience left before completion of the play-offs.
Utility defender Dudes Mwedihanga requested to be excused from selection for the entire tournament, citing fatigue, but Warriors honcho Mannetti remains unfazed.
“With our skipper Stigga joining us after Amatuks agreed to release him following the club’s relegation with nothing further to play for, we are happy to have a near full strength squad.”
Meanwhile, all eyes will be fixed on Highlands Park’s two-goal hero Pikes Shalulile, after the gangling goal poacher’s brace against Mbombela United clinched their promotion to the South African elite league.
“Obviously, Dudes’ absence will be felt but I’ve massive trust in the current crop of players at our disposal and believe they have what it takes to do a decent job,” said a confident Mannetti who also urged supporters to come out in large numbers and cheer on the boys.
“It’s our first game in the tournament and it is very important that we enjoy all the support we can get. I call upon every football-loving fan to get the Warriors’ replica jersey and paint the stadium red. We want to defend the cup, and home support will make a huge difference because when the stands are packed the team can perform much better with players out to deliver since they would feel more appreciated.”
Meanwhile, Mannetti has finalized his squad, raising a few eyebrows in the process with the omission of club-less in-form striker Kumbee Katjiteo and Tigers Romario Ndjavera, among those who failed to make the cut.
There is also no place for last year’s hero Chris Katjiukua and his partner in crime Virgil Vries. Both players have been overlooked after they broke the team’s curfew.
The final 20-member squad is as follows: Slimkat Mbaeva, Charles Uirab, Da Costa Angula, Seun Hoaseb, Tebs Lombard, Mashaba Karongee, Eddy Kambanda, Ossie Xamseb, Deon Hotto-Kavendjii, Dynamo Fredericks, Ballack Somaeb, Abes Iimbondi, Terry Uiseb, Larry Horaeb, Junior Gebhardt, Wangu Gome Batista, Benson Shilongo, Pikes Shalulile, Stigga Ketjijere and Ita Keimuine.