Of goals, penalties and heartbreak
From the moment that Jerry Louis put Mauritius into the lead, after just two minutes, in the opening match against Angola in Maseru on April 29, the tone was set for a goal harvest in the three qualifying groups of the Cosafa Castle Cup.
But amid all the goals and the penalty shootouts, there was heartbreak for two of the host nations ‘ Lesotho and Namibia ‘ after they both failed to book their places in the semi-finals.
Only Botswana, who have shown marked improvement in the last few years, were the hosts who managed to book their place in the semi-finals of the continent’s richest regional football tournament.
By the time the music died in Windhoek last Sunday and life started returning to normal ‘ after a weekend in which the city danced to the Cosafa Castle Cup beat ‘ the organisers were taking stock of a qualifying campaign that had produced goals galore.
Spread over three cities and in as many months, the campaign produced 21 goals in the six semi-finals and three final matches in Maseru, Gaborone and Windhoek.
There were seven other goals scored in the three third-place play-off matches, bringing the total to 28.
With an average of about three goals per match ‘ and another 36 from four games that spilled into the penalty shootout lottery ‘ the fans, including those watching the games live in television across the region, could not have asked for more.
There were six goals in the very first match ‘ with two in the first three minutes ‘ of the opening game between Angola and Mauritius in Maseru.
By the end of the game Angolan skipper Fabrice “Akwa” Maieco had scored a hattrick as the Panthers Negras raced to a comprehensive 5-1 victory that set the tone for the goal harvest.
Akwa ‘ who won the Angolan Sportsperson of the Year award for his role in leading his nation to the World Cup finals in Germany ‘ was duly named the man-of-the-match.
But if the first match was a thriller ‘ in terms of the goal harvest ‘ the next match between the hosts Lesotho and Mozambique was a big yawn.
Fittingly it ended goalless and spilled into the penalty shootout lottery where the hosts won 5-4.
The Mozambican Mambas never recovered after Mocamito’s first penalty was saved and the hosts scored all their five spot kicks to clinch victory.
So it was the dream final qualifying game ‘ the hosts versus the favourites.
But it was barely a contest and the Angolans ‘ on their way to Germany ‘ won convincingly with winger Ze Kalanga, the supplier of the cross that Akwa headed home in Rwanda to seal their place in Germany, scoring twice in a 3-1 victory.
It was not until the very last minute, with their team down 0-3, when the home fans were able to celebrate a consolation scored by substitute Bushi Moletsane.
There was a consolation for Mozambique as they won the third-place play-off with a 5-4 penalty shootout victory over Mauritius.
But if the first group went according to expectations, the second one in Gaborone was a fairy-tale story for the hosts.
Botswana have been doing fairly well in recent years and have moved up the table on the Fifa rankings.
But with South Africa fielding a strong team ‘ though not their strongest ‘ in this pool it meant that the Zebras were always expected to play second fiddle.
Bafana Bafana won their semi-final after edging Swaziland 1-0 with Benson Mhlongo scoring the solitary goal.
Botswana were even more convincing as they beat Madagascar 2-0 and, again, the hosts and the favourites were on a collision course.
And, this time, it was the hosts who won the right to play in the semi-finals.
The Zebras’ sensational penalty shootout victory over Big Brother neighbour South Africa was a result that rocked Botswana and breathed new life into the tournament.
An entire nation ‘ which a few years ago was such a lightweight for who just losing to Bafana Bafana by a respectable score would have been a major achievement ‘ came to a standstill as its proud Zebras went through the motions, and emotions, of a penalty shootout lottery.
And as each of the first 10 players converted their spot-kicks, the drama increased in the sudden death contest where every spot-kick could spell the difference between triumph and failure.
Then Seabo Sabanakgosi kept his cool to convert his spot-kick and, for the sixth time that afternoon, it was advantage Botswana.
In contrast Siboniso Gaxa lost his cool and his miss gave Botswana one of their greatest victories of all time.
Bafana Bafana have only won the Cosafa Castle Cup once and will have to wait for another year.
Last week the Cosafa Castle Cup bandwagon rolled into Namibia but, for once, the hosts failed to book their place in the final.
Namibia have never won a match in regulation time since the turn of the millennium but they were favourites against a Seychelles team whose entrance in the tournament complicated issues and made it difficult to stage the usual knockout matches.
But after Zambia had provided the highlights by scoring twice in the last six minutes to seal a memorable 3-1 victory over Malawi, the hosts failed to get into the same mood for a late rally and flurry of goals.
The Brave Warriors were held to a 1-1 draw in their semi-final by Seychelles but then lost the shootout 3-4 after Razundura Tjikuzu and Robert Nauseb missed from the spot.
With the hosts eliminated, it was always going to be difficult to woo the crowds to come for the final despite the attraction provided by Zambia’s heroics.
Chipolopolo were trailing 0-1 in their semi-final with just six minutes left when they suddenly turned on the power with a great comeback.
Goals by Dube Phiri (84), Rainford Kabole (85) and man-of-the-match Chris Katongo (88) gave Zambia their victory.
They were odds-on favourites to win the final match and they duly delivered with a 2-0 victory over the Seychelles.
The focus now turns to the semi-finals which will feature three former champions ‘ Zambia, Zimbabwe and Angola.
Zambia host Botswana in Lusaka on August 19 and then Zimbabwe’s Warriors take on Angola in Harare on September 17.
The journey that started in Maseru in April continues and both the fans and the organisers will be hoping that the goals continue to flow.
The Zebras of Botswana will be fighting for more than their cause.
It’s the cause for all the lightweights in the region ‘ from Lesotho to Namibia ‘ who one day dream that they will win Africa’s premier regional football tournament.