Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Zebras’ smooth but terribly bumpy road to AFCON 2012

Even up to this moment, many people around the globe find it hard to believe that Botswana qualified to make their maiden appearance at the 2012 AFCON to be co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.

Not long ago, Botswana used to be the whipping boys of many African countries, which used to thrash them with an avalanche of goals. Batswana, however, did not lose faith in football as they kept on supporting the team.

The most recent embarrassing moment for the Zebras was the qualification for the 1996 AFCON, which was shifted to South Africa at the last minute after Kenya proved unprepared.

Botswana then was in the same group as Mali, Guinea, Angola and Mozambique. All the countries humiliated Botswana and it all started with Mali that won 3-1 in Botswana and 5-0 at home.
Guinea won by a solitary goal in Botswana and wrapped it up 4-0 in Conakry.

Angola, on the other hand, won 2-1 in Botswana and 4-0 at home, while Mozambique won both their encounters by four goals at home and in Gaborone.

Botswana scored only two goals, courtesy of Mmoni ‘States’ Segopolo against Angola and Itumeleng ‘Tumie’ Duiker against Mali.

The results were so bad for the country that the Botswana Football Association (BFA) had to introspect and ended up rebuilding the team to usher in a new beginning.

The team went for a training camp in Ghana, the home country of then BFA’s technical advisor, Ben Koufie.

Since then, the road has not been easy for the team and it took more than hard work to be where it is now.

Over the past few years, results came bit by bit.

It all started in 2003 under then coach, Jelusic Vesselin, who many believe to have instilled a fighting spirit and self belief in the team.

The Zebras thrashed Lesotho 4-1 to pave themselves a way into the group stages for the 2006 World Cup.

Botswana found themselves in the middle of African giants like Tunisia (then AFCON defending champions), Morocco (then AFCON finalists) together with Kenya and Malawi.
Botswana did not lose that badly to Morocco and Tunisia and managed to pick points against Kenya and Malawi, something that was unheard of before.

Malawi used to continuously beat Botswana in the regional COSAFA tournament and it was a major milestone for Botswana to win. Botswana started to show some improvement against COSAFA powerhouses like South Africa and Angola.

In 2006, South Africa had to endure Botswana’s pain as Botswana beat them on penalties to send the whole country into wild celebrations.

The following year, it was Angola that had a star studded side but still lost to Botswana.
The South African game marked the end of Vesselin and in came Briton Colwyn Rowe.
A few months into the job, the Briton led Botswana to one of the biggest results for the country.
It was on October 5 when Botswana played then and now AFCON defending champions, Egypt. Botswana managed a point after a goalless draw.

Even coach Rowe once went to the extent of saying it was the biggest results for Botswana.
The qualifications for both 2010 AFCON and World Cup saw Zebras making significant strides even though they could not make it to qualification.

One match that would show Botswana was heading somewhere was against Mozambique in Maputo.
Against all odds, Botswana won the encounter 2-1, despite a capacity crowd at Machava stadium.
The game was Tshosane’s first following the sacking of Rowe. Botswana had not won an official match away, especially against much fancied Black Mambas.

The improvement graph of the Zebras extended to Ivory Coast where Botswana drew with them in Gaborone.

Another element that actually catapulted the Zebras was the excellent performance of the national Under 23, a feeder to the Zebras.

The National Under 23 made the country proud by qualifying for the group stages of the 2008 Olympic Games and nearly made it for 2009 All Africa Games, only to bow out in the last hurdle.

They beat countries like Tunisia, Morocco and Angola. Just after qualifying for the group stages of the Olympics, they were invited to an Eight Nations tournament in South Africa and showed no mercy to the 2008 Olympic hosts, China, which they walloped 4-0. They also beat Cameroon and Ghana en-route to the finals where they lost to the former.

A few months after the Eight Nations tournament, the national Under 23s were invited by the Chinese government for another Four Nations tournament of Asian countries.

Botswana ended up winning the tournament and beat Asian power houses like Japan and South Korea by solitary goals.

Most of the national Under 23 players made their way to the senior team and easily dovetailed with their seniors.

They caused havoc and beat African giants Tunisia and Togo.
Tunisia might not even make it to the 2012 AFCON tournament, courtesy of Zebras.

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