By FELIX MALUNGA –
ZAMBIA begins the quest for the elusive Orange African Under-20 Championship in Senegal this evening with an eye on qualifying to the 2015 FIFA Under-20 World Cup finals.
The Zambia Under-20 is making an eighth appearance at the African Youth Championship but has never won the competition and that is the history coach Hector Chilombo is chasing this year.
Zambia is returning to the continental showpiece, the stage for budding future African stars, after missing out on three successive tournaments in 2009, 2011 and 2013.
Despite not winning the African Under-20 crown, the junior Chipolopolo have twice reached the FIFA Under-20 World Cup finals in 1999 and 2007, respectively.
Tonight Zambia’s first hurdle is a tasty Group B opener against Mali at Stade Caroline Faye in Mbour, kicking off at 21:30 hours (Zambian time) and Chilombo is targeting a win against the West Africans.
“We just have to win against Mali but it will be tough. Senegal (in a friendly) gave us an insight of what to expect from West African teams,” Chilombo said in an interview.
He, however, said only hard work and determination could guarantee his charges a place in the semi-finals but was optimistic of a good outing in Senegal.
Chilombo said jetting into Senegal a week before the start of the tournament had also helped the players to acclimatise early.
“We have an advantage in that we came here a week earlier and the boys have acclimatised. I am thankful to the association (FAZ) for making it possible for us to be here for a week plus before the tournament starts,” Chilombo told fazfootball.com.
But Mali, buoyed by their Under-17’s triumph at the just-ended Africa Junior Championship in Niger, have some experience at this level and finished fourth in the last two editions.
Coached by Fagnéry Diarra, Mali are a formidable side which Zambia should not underrate.
Diarra boasts of nine foreign-based players in his squad despite missing the services of French side, Lille midfielder, Adama Traore.
Chilombo will look up to inspirational skipper Lubambo Musonda to get past Mali tonight.
Musonda, who starred for the senior team at the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Equatorial Guinea, hoped his experience would inspire his teammates as Zambia targets a third FIFA Under-20 World Cup qualification.
“I hope my experience gained from the 2015 AFCON will be vital to inspire my colleagues at the Africa Under-20 Championship. Everybody in camp is expectant and has high hopes of winning here. We can only hope for the best,” the Armenia-based playmaker said.
Apart from Musonda, other Under-20 players, who were part of the Chipolopolo at the 2015 AFCON, are midfielder Spencer Sautu and striker Patrick Ngoma.
The inclusion of Under-17 captain Patson Daka in the Under-20 also adds more depth in Chilombo’s squad.
This Group B match clash on the artificial turf of the 5,000-capacity Stade Caroline Faye will be officiated by Somali referee, Hagi Yabarow Wiish.
After the Mali encounter, Zambia will face three-time champions Ghana on March 12 before concluding the Group B assignments with a date against perennial rivals, South Africa three days later.
The four semi-finalists are guaranteed spots at the 2015 FIFA Under-20 World Cup finals in New Zealand.
Zambia’s probable line-up: Mangani Banda, Peter Mulenga, Benedict Chepeshi, Alex Mwamba, Kapota Kayawe, Kelvin Chinyama, Larry Bwalya, Spencer Sautu, Charles Zulu, Patrick Ngoma, Lubambo Musonda.