JOHANNESBURG (AFP) – African champions Zambia have adopted a practice-makes-perfect philosophy before defending the title in South Africa during January.
Chipolopolo (The Copper Bullets) will play four warm-up matches, against Tanzania, Swaziland, Morocco and Namibia, before facing Ethiopia on January 21 in the opening series of Group C fixtures in Nelspruit.
Zambia travel to Dar es Salaam for a game against non-qualifiers Tanzania this weekend, take a festive-season break, and head for South Africa early January to tackle Swaziland and Namibia in Nelspruit.
Sandwiched between those two friendlies will be a Johannesburg date with fellow qwalifiers Morocco, a country desperate for success after three consecutive first round exits from the Cup of Nations.
Coach Herve Renard, architect of the 2012 Cup campaign that culminated in a penalty shoot-out triumph over favoured Ivory Coast in the Libreville final, considers the friendlies a key factor in his preparations.
“These matches will sharpen us as our first Cup of Nations fixture against Ethiopia is very important — it is crucial to start the tournament well,” the French coach told the Zambian media.
Former champions Nigeria and Ethiopia complete Group C and the Chipolopolo and the Super Eagles are hot favourites to occupy the top two positions on the final table and qualify for the quarter-finals.
Tunisia, Cup of Nations winners in 2004 and quarter-finalists three times since, will be equally busy with warm-ups against Iraq, Egypt, Gabon and Ghana in the United Arab Emirates city of Abu Dhabi.
Egypt, the record seven-time Cup of Nations champions who will miss South Africa after a shock qualifying loss to Central African Republic, also play Ghana and Ivory Coast.
The match against the Pharaohs is the only warm-up for Ivory Coast, who for the fifth consecutive Cup of Nations carry the burden of favouritism. The closest they have come to glory was being 2006 and 2012 runners-up.
Nigeria, another nation craving glory after last lifting the trophy 18 years ago, are not listed on the FIFA friendlies schedule, but reports say they will face Angola during a training camp in Portugal and Catalonia in Barcelona.
There are fixtures involving 12 of the 16 Cup of Nations qualifiers with Burkina Faso, Cape Verde Islands, Democratic Republic of Congo and Mali the four finalists not scheduled to play.