The stage is set in South Africa for the start of the 2017 Cosafa Cup
The Cosafa Cup kicks off in South Africa on Sunday with 14 nations chasing the title at the annual southern African championship in an arduous test of stamina in what will be cold conditions over the next fortnight.
Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa are the fancied teams but the potentially exhausting format means there is every possibility of a surprise by the time the winner is decided at the Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace in Rustenburg on 9 July.
Eight countries open the first stage of the tournament with group matches, playing every second day with only the winner of each of two groups advancing to the second stage.
Angola, who have selected an unusually strong squad after years of fielding their under-20 side, are fancied to emerge top in Group A, which they share with Malawi, Mauritius and Tanzania.
The Taifa Stars are guests at the competition, not members of the Council of Southern Africa Football Associations, but invited after the Comoros Islands again declined to participate.
Tanzania will meet Malawi in the opening game in Group A on Sunday, followed by Angola against Mauritius in a double-header attraction at the Moruleng Stadium, not far from the Sun City resort in South Africa’s North West Province.
In Group B, which kicks off on Monday, Zimbabwe should face a stiff challenge from Mozambique to see who goes through to the knockout stage where the top six seeded teams join the competition.
The hosts plus Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Swaziland and Zambia only enter the fray next weekend when the quarter-finals are played on Saturday 1 July and Sunday 2 July.
The seedings are not based on Fifa rankings but rather past performances in the Cosafa Cup and it is a big advantage for the top six to join after the first week.
The two countries that advance as group winners will likely be fatigued already by having had to play three games in six days before advancing and then going straight into the last eight.
South Africa, whose squad is a mixed bag of up and coming talent plus players from the side that played at last month’s U-20 World Cup in South Korea, play the winner of Group A as they set about defending the title they won in Namibia last year when they edged Botswana in the final.
The Zebras, whose coach Peter Butler has just left them, start against Zambia while Namibia take on Lesotho, hoping to repeatthe heroics of their 2015 triumph at the same venues, in the grip of the South African winter, when they won the trophy for the first time.
For most of the participating countries the tournament is being used as preparation for the start of the African Nations Championship (CHAN) qualifiers later in July.
Sunday: Tanzania vs Malawi; Mauritius vs Angola (Moruleng Stadium)
Tuesday: Malawi vs Mauritius; Angola vs Tanzania (Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace)
Thursday: Tanzania vs Mauritius (Moruleng Stadium); Malawi vs Angola (Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace) ,
Monday: Mozambique vs Zimbabwe; Madagascar vs Seychelles (Moruleng Stadium)
Wednesday: Zimbabwe vs Madagascar; Seychelles vs Mozambique (Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace)
Friday: Mozambique vs Madagascar (Moruleng Stadium); Zimbabwe vs Seychelles (Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace)
Saturday, 1 July: Botswana vs Zambia,; Namibia vs Lesotho (Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace)
Sunday, 2 July: South Africa vs Winner Group A; Swaziland vs Winner Group B (Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace)
Tuesday, 4 July: Loser Botswana/Zambia vs Loser South Africa/Group A winner; Loser Namibia vs Lesotho vs Loser Swaziland vs Winner Group B (Moruleng Stadium)
Wednesday 5 July: Winner Botswana/Zambia vs Winner South Africa/Group A winner; Winner Namibia vs Lesotho vs Winner Swaziland vs Winner Group B (Moruleng Stadium)
Friday 7 July at Moruleng Stadium
Friday 7 July at Moruleng Stadium
Sunday 9 July at Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace