Sun retreats behind the clouds for Zebras
By Bakang Mhaladi
Gaborone – From the whipping boys, to a rising force, and then to weeping boys, Botswana’s senior soccer team has meandered through the extreme stages.
At times their play has been filled with so guile, sending expectations into new highs.
But often, it has ended just there.
The Zebras endured tough times during their early days in international football. The loses were incessant and the score lines, rugby like.
They kept trying but the fans were losing faith. In 1999, the Zebras touched a new low, reaching their worst ever FIFA ranking at number 165.
In a bid to address the slide, the Botswana Football Association (BFA) had earlier appointed Ghanian technical director, Ben Koufie in 2001.
The feeling was that he wasn’t doing his job as the Zebras’ fortunes refused to improve. Koufie had introduced a development program, with the future in mind.
In 2006, the BFA appointed Serbian, Jelusic Veselin as coach, and the Zebras began to play, with Koufie’s efforts beginning to bear fruit.
Although the team failed to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations finals, it displayed a lot of grit and determination, arousing football interest across the country.
It was Botswana’s best passage of play since independence in 1966. There was a lot of promise and talent, with players like Mogogi Gabonamong, Diphetogo Selolwane, Modiri Marumo, Kagiso Tshelametsi, Tshephiso ‘Sox’ Molwantwa, Tshepo ‘Talk Talk’ Motlhabankwe, to mention a few.
It was seen as the best crop at senior level, and five years later, with the majority of that group still in the squad, Botswana made it to the first ever AFCON finals in 2012.
It represented the brightest moment in Botswana’s football history.
The sun was out and the fans were dancing.
But post that historic qualification, the sun has retreated behind the clouds, and fans are feeling despondent.
At their peak, the Zebras raced to number 53 in the world in 2010, which was during the magnificent run in the AFCON qualifiers which saw them account for continental giants, Tunisia home and away, as well as slay Emmanuel Adebayor’s then decent Togo.
But seven years later, the Zebras are barely recognizable. After the departure of history making local coach, Stanley Tshosane, Englishman, Peter Butler was appointed.
He introduced a refreshing approach where he even little known players were given the platform at national level, a sharp departure from his predecessors, who preferred experience and form, ignoring potential and youth.
The results began coming in when the Zebras beat Mali, for the first time, and Burkina Faso in 2015.
Then it all went downhill. The Zebras lost their way due to a combination of factors, including inactivity.
They did not kick a ball between September 2016 and March this year and their ranking plummeted. When they began playing, results refused to come.
Butler left in June and in came experienced local coach, David Bright.
But he was met with a baptism of fire when his charges lost 3-0 on aggregate to regular irritant, South Africa in the Africa Nations Championship (CHAN) qualifiers.
Two matches followed, against Tanzania and Ethiopia.
Tanzania beat the Zebras 2-0 for the second time in six months, while the only reprieve and victory in the last 12months came against Ethiopia during an Independence Day clash on September 30.
When fans thought the Zebras were back on track, neighbors, Namibia quickly dashed the emerging hopes with a 3-1 drubbing a fortnight ago.
It felt like a windy, cloudy day. The sun had briefly re-appeared butquickly slid back under the clouds, as the Zebras continue the repair works, which are not giving immediate results.
BFA president, Maclean Letshwiti has said he is not too fazed about the lack of results, arguing focus should be on development first, and the rest would follow.
“There is no successful team without a robust development program.
“When you know that you have arrived, you should see your players being exported to Africa, Europe and other parts. We are far from that,” he said.
But now, the fans are concerned as the Zebras plummet ever close to their worst position of 165, after the latest rankings, released on Monday, showed the Botswana side at number 147.
In Africa, Botswana is now just 11places from anchoring the 54 nation table, at number 44 slid further down the FIFA World rankings released on Monday, reaching number 147, just 18places away from the worst position reached in 1999.
The bright days now appear a distant memory as the Letshwiti administration gaze at the cloud sky looking for solutions.