After hitting their lowest-ever mark in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking at 185 in August, Lesotho have begun to climb their way back up the standings. A hard-fought victory in the opening round of 2014 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying over Burundi has Likuena (The Crocodiles) looking ahead to 2012 and the looming qualifiers for both Brazil 2014 and the 2013 CAF Africa Cup of Nations.
It figures to be a very busy time for the 148th-ranked team in the world, particularly considering that they recently went almost two years without an international fixture in order to concentrate on developing their youth teams. But coach Leslie Notsi will need to have his young side prepared for the deep end as they attempt to navigate a brutal FIFA World Cup preliminary Group D that includes Ghana, Sudan and Zambia. Given his team’s relative lack of experience, Notsi will be happy to also have the qualifiers for the continental championship to help him prepare, and the Basotho side will be favoured to overcome Sao Tome e Principe over two legs in the initial round before the winner goes head to head with Sierra Leone.
Still a long way from their all-time highest FIFA Ranking of 120 in 2003, Lesotho were nonetheless the best mover in the rankings in September, climbing 25 spots. After leaping another 14 places in October, Likuena are back near their average rank of 145th. They are currently 41st in Africa, just behind the conquered Burundians, so their Brazil 2014 preliminary triumph could be considered an upset - particularly as they were recently 40 places behind them in the rankings.
Shooting down the Swallows
Calling on a group of mostly domestic-based players against Burundi, Notsi made it clear that the tie was “crucial” for the development of Basotho football. Having helped guide the U-20 team to shock qualification for the 2011 African Youth Championships, the coach’s side skewed young with few players nearing the age of 30, and he had to do without injured captain Lehlohonolo Seema. But the untested team, nicknamed “babes” by the local press, held their nerve in the home leg, withstanding a barrage of pressure and waiting for their chance.
Naturally, the all-important goal came from one of the youngsters as Lehlomela Ramabele banged in the match’s only tally eight minutes from time at Setsoto Stadium in Maseru. The 19-year-old Botswana-based striker probably didn’t realise at the time that his goal would serve to give Lesotho the first FIFA World Cup qualifying victory in their history after 14 previous tries had ended in 11 defeats and three draws. It was also their first competitive international victory since March of 2007 when they beat Niger in qualifying for the 2008 CAF Africa Cup of Nations.
I saw players who have matured a lot. They fought bravely for their country, which shows important growth.
However, there was no time to sit back and admire the achievement as the Crocodiles faced a stung Burundi in Bujumbura for the return leg just four days later. Presciently, Notsi said after the first contest: “I could not have asked for a better start. The win has sent confidence soaring in the camp, although I feel we need to be more aggressive up front." And his side responded to his wishes quickly out of the gates as first Thapelo Tale and then Bokang Mothoana exploited the seams in the host defence to put the visitors ahead 2-0 in the first 22 minutes.
All-but untouchable with a three-goal aggregate lead and two away goals, Lesotho coasted - with a fair bit of nerves it must be said - to a 2-2 draw and a 3-2 win in the tie. It was an historic achievement for the country of just two million, a vindicating one at that given the decision to put the national team on hiatus to focus resources on building up the base of players able to step into the side.
Notsi was particularly pleased by how far his young side had come. “The matches against Burundi were very tough,” he said. “But I saw players who have matured a lot. They fought bravely for their country, which shows important growth. I hope we continue to show the same spirit and improve in the future.”