OPINION: Cosafa is misunderstood

The tournament is the only regional competition played consistently on the African continent these days after the East African championship was not staged in 2014 or 2016.

The COSAFA Castle Cup has always been a competition to develop football in the Southern African region, on and off the pitch, and from that point of view it has been a resounding success.

It is there to build the capacity of skills among players, coaches, match officials and administrators, and to help football in the region improve in all these capacities. If you base it solely on that, it has fulfilled its mandate in the last two decades.

South Africans tend to have an arrogant attitude towards the COSAFA Castle Cup – if it’s not the World Cup or African Nations Cup, it doesn’t matter to them. Nor do they see the benefit to the region where, given our resources, we should be a leader and gleefully play the role of big brother.

It provides the likes of Swaziland and Lesotho with competitive international fixtures when they would otherwise have long periods of inactivity. 
Take Swaziland as an example, since they competed in the 2016 COSAFA Castle Cup, they had played just two competitive internationals ahead of this year’s competition. Two games in 12 months!

Added to that, there is a long list of players who cut their teeth at international level in the COSAFA Castle Cup – where they were given the opportunity to showcase their ability and went on to become permanent members of their national sides.

Teko Modise and Katlego Mphela are two such examples among many South Africans, and Benjani Mwaruwari, Chris Katongo, Collin Benjamin and Dipsy Selolwane are but a few others from the region.

And what of the many, many players who have used the competition as a launchpad for their club careers, scouted to teams in the PSL and beyond. For them the tournament has been life-changing.

The timing of the tournament does make it difficult for the South African national team coach to select his strongest squad. But I would wager that even if the tournament was played on FIFA dates, it would still be used to give fringe players a run, as a competition to have a look at promising youngsters in a competitive environment.

And beyond what happens on the pitch, it is also a proving ground for match officials and administrators.

Zambia successfully hosted the COSAFA Castle Cup in 2013, where they learnt much about the rigours of staging a multi-team international tournament.
On the back of that, this year they hosted the African Under-20 Championships and the obvious next step for them is the African Nations Cup finals at some point in the future.

They have been able to build up their experience and capacity in this regard, seen where their strengths lie, but also importantly, acknowledged what their weaknesses are and what needs to be fixed.

The same goes for general co-ordinators at the tournament, media officers and members of the Organising Committee.

The 2017 COSAFA Castle Cup may have been staged in South Africa, but the people filling these functions were drawn from all over the region, and the skills they acquire are taken back to their own countries.

Putting together a 14-team tournament is not easy, there are many pitfalls in the minutiae along the way, and much would have been learnt in 2017.

Some of the officiating in the tournament was poor – we cannot escape that fact.

But at least the referees and their assistants will be given the opportunity to review their performances and learn from them. The technical committee that analyses every match will make sure of that.

Zambian referee Janny Sikwaze, who officiated in the COSAFA Castle Cup final last year, went on to blow the whistle at the FIFA Club World Cup, including the final with Real Madrid. Every bit of international exposure is an opportunity to learn and grow.

So before writing off the COSAFA Castle Cup as meaningless, as many have, think outside of our own narrow interests. Think about its impact on Southern African football in the last 20 years and how it continues to grow capacity in our region in all facets of the game.

Then you might understand its purpose …