The surprise story of CAF Africa Cup of Nations 2012 qualifying, Botswana have hit a high-water mark in terms of their relation to the rest of the world. An all-time best of 67th on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking is a just reward for the team known as the Zebras.
Drawn into Group K of the continental preliminaries, Botswana were considered serious dark horses when stacked against favourites Tunisia, Togo, a tricky Malawi side and Chad. But 13 points from five matches have them six points in front of the Tunisians - who are four-time FIFA World Cup™ participants - and looking destined to reach their first-ever Cup of Nations in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
We have been building this team for a while now. What people see is not based on luck only or a fluke.
They affirmed their control of the table with a heart-pounding 1-0 home victory over the Les Aigles de Carthage (The Carthage Eagles) in the middle of last month. They won by an identical score in Tunis to kick off their campaign with a bang, and the same scorer was the hero on both days: Jerome Ramatlhakwane. In fact, the South Africa-based striker has netted a continent-best four times in five matches, scoring in four different contests to spur the Zebras up the chart.
That win in Gaborone lifted the modest country of two million people 12 spots up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. They are now sandwiched between Asian powerhouses Iran and Saudi Arabia on the global ladder, and ranked 13th on the continental list in front of such heralded sides as Zambia, Senegal, Morocco and many others who have previously considered them minnows. It was not a totally unfair thought even just 18 months ago as Botswana languished at number 134 on the Ranking after failing to impress in the joint qualifying tournament for South Africa 2010 as well as the Cup of Nations 2010.
Coach Stanley Tshosane is the man most consider responsible for Botswana's turnaround, which he began when taking over the team in 2008. An old hand in the local game and previously a caretaker coach of the national side, Tshosane has been instrumental in finding match practice for his team and working with them slowly but surely to feel more comfortable at the highest levels of the game.
As he told FIFA.com recently: “We have been building this team for a while now. What people see is not based on luck only or a fluke. The most important thing for us is to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations. That will be a major achievement for these boys, and they deserve it.”
With three matches to play, they just need to win their next contest at Chad in March of next year to make history and reach the AFCON for the first time. "We are not yet there, but we are very close," Tshosane said after the second Tunisia win, before adding carefully: "We must keep focused, that is the word of caution, because the other teams who are six points behind us can come from behind and overtake us if we don’t."
If they manage to rub shoulders with the big boys of the continent, certainly the 25-year-old Ramatlhakwane will be seen as an emerging star. And the appearance could well be a fine send-off for Botswana’s most famous footballer, all-time scoring and caps leader Diphetogo ‘Dipsy’ Selolwane, who will turn 34 near the start of the 2012 event.