The Cosafa Castle Cup is truly a one-of-a-kind regional competition, and will mark its 100th game on 19 September when Mozambique host Angola in Maputo in the first of this year's semi-finals.
The tournament is an annual event for the national teams of the Confederation of Southern Africa Football Associations (Cosafa), which has 13 members and is arguably among the most active of the world's regional football bodies.
The Cosafa Castle Cup is the only regional event played on a knockout basis throughout a calendar year and for which a prerequisite of participation is also taking part in the organisation's junior and women's football events.
It has led to a healthy level of competition in the region and has become a vital lifeline of international activity for many of its members.
A showpiece for Southern Africa
Countries like Lesotho, Mozambique and Swaziland, who have all failed to reach the group stages of the African zone qualifiers for the 2006 FIFA World Cup finals in Germany, all turn to the Cosafa Castle Cup as their only forum for competitive football for the next two years.
The Cup keeps alive interest in their national teams at a time when they could be sidelined for long, and potentially damaging periods of time.
The tournament was born of a desire to provide greater competition for the Cosafa nations. Southern Africa had endured something of a bridesmaid's role in continental and world football and it was felt that the region needed to play more and in a competitive arena in order to develop.
"I'm proud of how the tournament has come along and how much international recognition it has received," said FIFA executive committee member Ismail Bhamjee, who is also the long-serving president of Cosafa.
"Wherever I travel in the world, people are always asking me about it and how we have managed to keep it going."
The competition was first played in 1997 with nine participants, one of whom - Tanzania - was a guest invited from the East and Central African region.
A three-time champion in the making?
The first tournament was played on a league basis after a preliminary knockout round and was won by Zambia, who finished above Namibia and Mozambique in the standings. The other participants were Malawi, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.
Angola and South Africa joined the party in 1998 and Mauritius and Madagascar were added to the roster in 2000. The Seychelles are due to make their debut in the 2005 edition, which will be the ninth instalment of the competition.
|Gabonese Georges Akiremy (L) vies with Angolese Joao Pereira in an African Cup-World Cup 2006 twin elimination match 03 July 2004. The match between the Panthers of Gabon and the Palencas Negras of Angola ended tied 2-2.|
Zimbabwe host Zambia in the second semi-final in Harare on 24 October, but not before the centennial celebrations in Maputo on 19 September, which will be marked by the presence of footballing celebrities from the region and beyond.
No cakewalk for Bafana
The one inconsistency of the Cosafa Castle Cup has been the indifferent showing of South Africa in the tournament over the last six years, despite their status as the number one ranked team in the region.
South Africa are the only country from Cosafa who have won the African Nations Cup title and twice qualified for the FIFA World Cup finals.
But despite their vaunted status the Bafana Bafana have only managed to win the Cosafa Castle Cup once (2002), often succumbing to surprise defeats from their highly motivated opponents.
"The tournament has been a great leveller," asserted Bhamjee. "Countries like Lesotho and Namibia have played in the final before, proving that there are no longer any star teams in the region and that everyone has a chance to achieve glory."