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The curtain has fallen in what has been one of the shortest seasons.

The scarcity of sponsors saw most of the players playing an average of 26 games. With the off-season break underway, focus shifts to the national team that will be in action between next month and July. In fact, there is a tight schedule ahead for Dominic Kunene’s men. On the second week of June, Sihlangu are expected to face Togo in game five out of six in the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) Qualifiers. Following a dismal qualifying campaign, the AFCON dream hangs by a thread. Sihlangu are five points adrift of the qualifying spot. In short, expecting the national outfit’s AFCON bid to be successful is like trying to convince a four-year-old that lettuce tastes like candy. 

The immediate assignment after the Togo test is the Council of Southern Africa Football Associations (COSAFA) Cup, where Sihlangu are guaranteed game time every year. The 2023 COSAFA Cup is scheduled to take place in Durban, a vibrant coastal city in South Africa, from July 5 to July 16. It will be held in 43 days’ time, which is not very far. This year’s edition will be played under a new format. Under the new format, a total of 12 teams will compete, divided into three groups, each consisting of four sides. The group winners and the best runner-up will then progress to the semi-finals.

The host nation, South Africa, alongside last year’s champions, Zambia, and the runners-up from 2022, Namibia, will serve as the seeded teams in their respective groups. The draw for the group stages is set to occur immediately after COSAFA’s annual general meeting, which is slated to be held in Johannesburg this coming Friday. From July 5 to July 12, the pool games will be contested, followed by the semi-finals on July 14. Finally, the highly anticipated final and the third-place play-off will be held at the King Zwelithini Stadium two days later.
With a tight schedule, especially the 2026 World Cup qualifiers; the Sihlangu technical bench should use the COSAFA Cup to assemble a wide pool of players for future tournaments.

Most countries use their development squads in this tournament, but Sihlangu always unleash their so-called best but still end up with the wooden part of the spoon. It is high time Eswatini’s approach to the tournament changes. After all, there is not much at stake in the regional tournament, as the champions still get a lousy E500 000. A lot of rising stars emerged in the Premier League in the past season, which makes the COSAFA Cup a perfect platform to establish themselves.


Why opt for the old horses who end up exiting in the group stages when there are plenty of young and untested players who are determined to leave a mark on the big stage? So the message for the Sihlangu technical bench is loud and clear -  the talented and untested players should form a core of the COSAFA squad. This team should be blended with not more than five seasoned campaigners. By the end of this month, the preparations for the COSAFA Cup should start. The bigger picture is having a balanced and strong squad that will fight for a place in the 2026 World Cup, starting later this year. The journey to the biggest tournament in the world has been made a little bit easy, with increased slots for the African continent.  The Confederation of African Football (CAF) announced a new format for the qualifiers of the 2026 FIFA World Cup, following the decision by FIFA to increase Africa’s quota from five to nine direct tickets.

The new format, which was approved by the Executive Committee of CAF during its meeting in Algiers last Thursday, will see the 54 Member Associations divided into nine groups of six teams each. Games will be played on a round robin basis, and the top team from each group after match day 10, will earn an automatic qualification to the 2026 World Cup to be hosted by the United States, Mexico and Canada. Consequently, the best four second-placed teams from across all nine groups will enter into a continental play-off to determine one winner, who will then proceed to a second and final play-off which will include six teams from the other different confederations. The top two of these six will qualify for the World Cup to make up the 48 teams.

The qualifiers are scheduled to start in November this year, with match may one and two scheduled for between November 13-21,2023. The third and fourth match days are scheduled for June 2024. The last match day will be in the week of October 6-14 while the continental play-off will be staged between November 10-18, 2025 at a venue to be communicated later.
While making the World Cup finals looks like a distant dream for Eswatini, the country should not fail to invest in the preparations.  We are talking about proper preparations not friendly matches against ‘Cinderella’ teams like Lesotho. The latter alongside the likes of Sao Tome and Principe, Djibouti, Eritrea and Seychelles, among others, belong to a league of countries that have never qualified for the AFCON finals. Let us not do the same thing and expect different results.