Zebras coach James Peter Butler has never had it easy since he took over the reins at the senior national team. When he was hired to the top post, many people questioned his credentials, experience and ability to build a formidable team. This was not helped by the fact that he had to meet very high expectations, as he came just after the Zebras had qualified for the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) that was co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
Butler became even more unpopular because of his team selection, as it sometimes contradicted what he said he was mandated to do. He would go to the extent of scouting for players in the lower divisions and calling them for senior national team duty. Most of those players had never played Premier League football. Again, Butler often caused consternation among football pundits when he selected players who were a bit old and nearing 30 years of age. He faced a scathing backlash from some pundits, who questioned his decision to select ageing players who had never even played at junior national team level, while dropping younger players who had been through almost all national youth structures.
Then came the Afcon 2015 qualifiers. Butler kept on changing the team and chopping players to the extent that by the time the qualification games ended he did not have a regular first team. He finished the qualifiers with just one point and that gave his detractors more ammunition. But things started looking brighter for Butler during the qualifications for the 2017 Afcon. Even though the team started off with a 2-0 loss to Uganda, they went on to beat Burkina Faso 1-0 in Francistown. Burkina Faso is one of the strongest African teams and in 2013 they proceeded all the way to the Afcon finals, where they lost to Nigeria by a solo goal. The Zebras also surprised many when they beat a star studded Mali 2-1 in Francistown last week. However, they lost 2-0 in the return leg in Bamako.
The good times are back for Butler, and his detractors have suddenly gone quiet. Football pundits believe Butler is on the right track, saying what he needs is unparallel support from the Botswana Football Association (BFA). Football analyst Fobby Radipotsane told Sunday Standard that the BFA should organise as many friendly matches as possible for the Zebras. This he said will make players active and not lose international focus.
“Many countries always organize four nation tournaments. We should do the same and stop experimenting with players in big international matches. This will definitely take us somewhere because we have so many talented players in the country,” he said.
Radipotane also said he likes Butler’s tactic of mixing inexperienced and experienced players, which elevates and motivates the former. For his part, former football administrator Segolame Ramothwa said Butler has managed to close the gap between Botswana and many of the so called big countries.
“The Zebras performances against both Mali and Burkina Faso were definitely impressive and such momentum should not be left to fade. If we do things the right away then the future is bright for our national team,” he said.
However, one local coach who preferred anonymity criticized Butler for his team selection. He said the team could have done better had he done things right from the beginning.
“Everywhere you go around the world you will find that a new team is built around the old one. What Butler did was to completely build a new team from scratch. He only changed tact when he realized that he was headed for a major disaster. But it was bit too late for him and the signs are there to see in the national team. His defense is bit shaky and even the striking force is very thin,” he said.
He questioned why Butler chose to leave out an experienced defender like Obuile Ncenga and even Jerome Ramatlhakwane up front.
“When Ramatlhakwane was banging goals for the national team he was not attached to any team. Even now at Township Rollers he scores when given a run. I can bet with you that Ramatlhakwane could have buried the chances that our inexperienced strikers missed,” he said.