It never rains for Letsoaka

Serame Letsoaka’s high-riding troops may have rewritten the history books two weeks ago when they became the first national team to beat Nigeria in a competitive match, but they are far from resting on their laurels.

The success, which guaranteed an automatic qualification for the Fifa under-20 World Cup set for Egypt in September, has generated a national interest in the junior team. Keen to build on that foundation, Letsoaka has set reaching the semifinals of the football showpiece as the minimum target.

Commonly known as Amajita, the national under-20 side made the country proud with an outstanding brand of football performance at the African Youth Championship tournament in Rwanda last month. They finished fourth behind Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria.

However, head coach Letsoaka says he can only achieve his goal if he gets 70% of his players who play regularly for their respective teams.
“Our goal is to reach the semifinals and beyond. That will be the cherry on top. If we can conquer Africa I don’t see a reason why we shouldn’t do the same at the World Cup. It all seems achievable but the old tug of war problem between the national team and the Premier Soccer League (PSL) clubs over players is once again the hurdle,” Letsoaka told the Mail & Guardian this week.

The coach had to do without his stars in Rwanda—players such as Sameehg Doutie of Ajax Cape Town, Masibusane Zongo (SuperSport United), Sibisiso Mgcoyana (Orlando Pirates) and Kermit Erasmus (Feyenoord of Holland), who were not released by their respective clubs.

Asked if he is likely to release his players for the juniors’ World Cup seeing that the Absa Premiership will be in full swing, Gavin Hunt, the SuperSport United coach, said he will comply but questioned whether other clubs would do the same.

“In the last tournament I released George Maluleka and Philane Khwela and I think that was enough. I can’t release the whole team and the national team can’t be dependent on one player [Zongo],” said Hunt.

Though Letsoaka might be faced with the same problem in September, there shouldn’t be any elements of disturbance when his team kick off their preparation in June as the PSL season will end in May.

Unlike Bafana Bafana, Amajita are looking to play friendly matches against countries that will also take part in the World Cup. Plans are already in place
to hold a training camp in June in South America and to play friendly matches against Brazil, Venezuela, Paraguay or Uruguay.

Letsoaka said there have to be proper preparations ahead of the football showpiece. “Our preparations will start in June but we will also look at the Fifa open calendar between March 28 and April 1. There is no point in not playing potential opponents ahead of the tournament. The four South American sides I have mentioned have already qualified for the World Cup. We will decide after the draw who to play. We want to engage teams that will be in the same group as us.

“We are also looking at playing two or three international friendly matches against Italy, Spain, Czech Republic, Hungary or Germany around July. The Confederations Cup will also help us in learning a thing or two even though we won’t be in action,” Letsoaka said.

Lack of game time for most of the Amajita players is of great concern to their coach. “This is exactly where the reserve league would come in handy because we can’t get all the club’s regular players. But with more friendly matches, we should be ready for the World Cup.”

The under-20s will also host a four nations tournament from July 3 to 12, which will feature Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon. These are the only African nations including Amajita that will take part in the World Cup.

The four nations tournament will be followed by a camp in Egypt and a friendly match against the national side in August.

The team will then move to Kenya or Ethiopia in September for altitude training.

“I want the players to familiarise themselves with the environment and the facilities in Egypt and then move on to Kenya or Ethiopia. I want my team to be well prepared for the tournament,” says Letsoaka.

Letsoaka also revealed that Amajita would only go to Egypt four days before the tournament kick offs as opposed to a longer period.

“And I would also like to plead with the PSL teams to release the players I have selected as this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the youngsters.”

With the attitude shown by Amajita in their last couple of matches, reaching the semifinals of the Fifa under-20 World Cup shouldn’t be an uphill battle. It is certainly an achievement within their reach.

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