Over the years, there have been youth teams in Botswana but they achieved little that could make the country proud. However, the youth teams that come to mind are the 1995 and 97 Under 17 teams that were known as the Diamond Zebras and ‘a basimane ba kgwathe’ (humiliate the opponents) fame. Although the two teams did not really put Botswana on the world map, most countries took recognition of Botswana’s potential.
The 1995 Diamond Zebras went all the way to Mali for the African Youth Championships.
Even though Botswana’s qualification was dismissed in some soccer circles as a table decision, it was genuine. Zambia was supposed to progress to the deciding game against Malawi after beating Botswana by an overall margin of 6-1. It was later discovered that they used over-aged players and Botswana was given the go ahead. Botswana went on to beat Malawi 2-1. Botswana lost all their three opening games and managed to score one goal. The same thing happened to the 1997 team. Despite Botswana being the hosts, they also lost all the opening three games and managed to also score a single goal.
One of the most embarrassing defeats was against the Ivory Coast which trashed Botswana 7-0 in front of the then President Sir Ketumile Masire. But the two youth teams produced some players who stood the test of time.
The players did not wane quickly and were not even prone to injuries compared to some of their colleagues. Some of the players are still highly involved in competitive soccer and some are even in the professional ranks outside the country. Some soccer pundits view the drastic improvement of the senior team to be the result of those famous Under 17s. Most players from the two Under 17s went all the way from the youth structures to the senior team. Some of these players are Diphetogo Selolwane, Tshephiso Molwantwa, Seabo Gabanakgosi, Masego Nchingane, Mompati Thuma, Mogogi Gabonamong and Pius Kolagano. Other players could not progress because of a variety of factors. Others just faded; others were injured while some were just not good enough for the national selectors. Those that waned quickly are seen to have been over-aged then because they should still be playing. The most hit area was the goalkeeping department. Most goalkeepers who started from the junior teams rarely made it to the senior team. It can be borne in mind that the likes of Lesego Moeng, Reuben Mosweu, Jackson Legodi (formerly Molatedi) and Anthony Matengu have never made it to the senior team but started from the under 17s.
Although Tshephiso Molwantwa, Seabo Gabanakgosi and Masego Nchingane and Pius Kolagano might not be in the senior team, they are national team material. Molwantwa is not playing for the national team due to unclear circumstances and he has since left a void. Gabanakgosi, on the other hand, fell victim to the new coach, Colwyn Rowe, but was previously a regular for Rowe’s predecessor, Jellusic Vesselin. Kolagano, on the other hand, had a dangerous injury but he fought back after it got healed. Now both Gabanakgosi and Kolagano have formed an impregnable defence at Santos, a team that is currently doing well.
Nchingane, on the other hand, just retired from the team while still at his peak. Since he left his position, the Zebras are yet to find his suitable replacement. Nchingane is still playing and even helped his team bounce back from the First Division. Selolwane, Thuma and Gabonamong are still the notable faces and the roles they play in the team are highly crucial. One day while Selolwane was playing for the Under 17, former Botswana Football Association technical advisor, Ben Koufie, described him as a rare germ. He said if Botswana could have many Selolwane’s no country was going to stand in Botswana’s way. Selolwane has since lived to Koufie’s words and is one of the only two Botswana players playing in the South African Premier League. Another one is Gabonamong who is at Cape Town Santos. He does the dirty work in the middle of the pack and, just like Selolwane, he appears to be every coach’s favourite.
His passion and robust playing once saw him playing in Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean. Thuma also progressed smoothly from the youth teams to the senior team. The then coach of the Under 17, Ray Whelam spotted potential in Thuma when the team was being assembled. Thuma played as a striker but Whelam converted him into the defence. Since then, he has never looked back. He has a frail looking body but swashbuckling strikers don’t scare him.