Botswanain football was once in dissarray. The nation had never qualified for a World Cup competition or for an African Cup of Nations and in 1999 were ranked a lowly 168th in the FIFA World Rankings.
Going into the qualification rounds for the 2012 African Cup Of Nations things didn’t look much better as they were the fourth choice seed in a group containing the 2004 winners Tunisia and Emmanuel Adebayor’s Togo. However thanks to a string of excellent results Botswana became the first team to qualify for the tournament back in March after star striker Jerome Ramatlhakwane scored for Botswana in a 1-0 victory over Chad. Through qualifying Botswana shot up the FIFA rankings reaching 67th, although they are now down to 78th.
In the process Botswana recorded some stunning results including beating Tunisia both home and away, in a turn around of fortunes for the minnows that has surprised onlookers both in and outside of Africa.
Of the squad that has brought this success only two players played outside of Botswana and both of those are players struggling to get games in the South African League. That includes Botswana’s leading striker the aforementioned Jerome Ramathakwane (who had an unsuccessful trial at League two club Bradford City) who scored four match winners and is the second highest scorer in the tournament. Virtually every player is unknown outside of Botswana which makes their feat even more impressive.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what led to Botswana defying the odds in such spectacular fashion. One thing that certainly contributed was an overhaul of the Botswana Premier League which is where as stated the majority of players ply their trade. Through reforms implemented by the league’s General Manager Setete Phuthego there has been a massive commitment to improve the league which has seen huge investment into clubs. Although, training facilities are still said to be sub-par with only one of the 16 sides having a proper training pitch, which arguably makes the sides recent exploits even more impressive. The league has undoubtedly become more competitive thanks to Phutego who stated of developments in Botswanain football, “Premier league teams have invested a lot in their teams. The majority of Zebras players ply their trade in the domestic league. We have players depending on football to put food on their tables. Their livelihood is playing football. The Zebras’ success can be attributed to the improvement of the domestic league.”
One thing that Phutego did was negotiate and sign the Bosele Declaration of 2008 which aimed to professionalize and commercialize the game with a financial commitment of 2.5 million Euros over 4 seasons, a significant amount of money in Botswana. Botswana used the sponsorship money to pay player wages and improve facilities. The deceleration also makes it a requirement that all teams have adaquete training facilities by the beginning of the 2012/2013 season in a bid to remedy the aforementioned problems with training pitches in Botswana.
Youth development projects have also been a key initiative in Botswana with every league team being made to have an u15 and u17 side as a requirement for maintaining their status in the Premier Division. Prior to this, former Ghanaian manager Ben Kouffie who was technical director for the Botswana FA between 1992 and 2001, was a key component of ushering in a new era of youth development in Botswana, first and foremost by repeatedly emphasizing its importance and it appears that it may now have paid off. Botswana under-23 coach, Daniel “Chicco Dance” Nare goes as far as to credit Kouffie with the teams current success commenting, “All the success we are celebrating is due to Kouffie’s vision. It was through hard work. We know where this started and I’m very proud to have been there when this started.” Kouiffe was responsible for a number of youth projects a well as developing young coaches like Nare.The Botswana National Sports Council (BNSC)’s Reba Bona Ha project at Primary Schools is one of the initiatives focused on improving youth football, and it is already paying off having created U-23 national goalkeeper Kabelo Dambe.
The future is certainly bright for Botswana and whilst they have been successful so far they will be drawn into a group for the Afcon 2012 tournament as the bottom seed which could see them come up against African heavyweights such as the Cote D’Ivoire or Ghana. If this were the case their run in the tournament could be short lived, although its difficult to write off a side that have defied their critics this far. Their recent home 2-1 defeat against Lesotho also rings alarm bells as does their loss against Togo 1-0 in the final group stage match which led to them losing their undefeated record. One would hope to put this down a post-qualification hangover as Botswana have first place already secured. Botswana will need to re-find their form if they are to make an impact in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. What should be remembered is that to even make it to the tournament, the nations first, is a monumental achievement in itself, anything else would be a bonus for Botswana, although their coach probably doesn’t see it like.
In more general footballing terms Botswana have a lot to do to get to a good standard. As previously stated problems with training facilities are slowly but surely being addressed. Infrastructure is still not anywhere near good enough to host a tournament if that is an ambition of the Botswana FA. Molebatsi, the current director of football said that the football structures that were needed to take the country to another level were not in place. “The structures are still frail. The way teams are run is without underlying strategy.” Having identified the problems one would hope that they are going to go about addressing them. But for now focus must go on preparation for Equatorial Guinea and Gabon 2012 where The Zebras will hope to continue upsetting the odds.