Not long ago, the Lesotho national football team was in the doldrums. Disbanded by the Lesotho Football Association (LFA), the team played no international matches for over a year and was in a free-fall down the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking to their worst-ever ranking of 185th in August 2011.
That was when the LFA turned to Leslie Notsi, who had previously been an assistant to Zaviza Milosavljevic before the Serb was sacked in 2009. FIFA.com spoke to Notsi about the side's changes in fortune, which has seen the Likuena (The Crocodiles) climb up the rankings from 166th in March to 147th this month.
"The LFA asked me to build a team for the under-20s, and we qualified for the 2011 African Youth Championships. By the beginning of 2011, the senior team was started again," the 49 year-old former goalkeeper said recently about the side whose best-ever ranking came in 2003 when they were 120th in the world. He is even more bullish about his team as they gain more experience. "There is a good future, but we need to keep focusing on the youth."
Surprising success on the road to Brazil
Notsi's first competitive game in charge saw the southern African team face Burundi in the first round of the CAF qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, and his team surprised the higher ranked Swallows by knocking them out 3-2 on aggregate, which included their first World Cup qualifying victory.
In the second round, Lesotho were drawn into a brutal Group D together with Ghana, Zambia and Sudan and since then the Crocodiles have continued to make waves, taking four points from two matches with the Sudanese and even holding the 2012 African champion Zambians to a 1-1 draw in March of this year.
Notsi admits that the result against the fellow southern African country had caused some mixed emotions for him as it placed the Chipolopolo in a difficult situation regarding their ultimately unsuccessful World Cup aspirations. "But at the same time, our country's pride was also at stake," Notsi said. "After that game there was a lot of confidence in our team.
There is a good future, but we need to keep focusing on the youth.
"Our supporters, in fact all the Basuto [the people of Lesotho] were very proud that day. It was as if we had won the game, it brought back the confidence with all the players and all the stakeholders in our football fraternity. I can really say it was a very good turning point for us.”
The coach, who won the league and cup when he was in charge of Matlama FC and the cup with the current champions Lioli, has promoted many of the players from the youth programme to the senior national team. "We have players from the under-17s, and the ones I was coaching at the under-20s," Notsi said.
"I roped them into the national team, and we also have some important senior players who qualified for the African Youth Championships in Benin in 2005. They have brought a wealth of experience into the team."
Building on experience
Notsi said another reason for the upsurge in fortunes has been the number of matches they have played. "We have gained a lot out of those games," Notsi explained. The Crocodiles finished fourth of 13 teams at the 2013 COSAFA Cup - a regional competition in which heavyweights such as Zambia, South Africa and Zimbabwe compete.
"We did so well in the COSAFA Cup because of the exposure that the players got in the World Cup qualifiers," Notsi said. "We drew and lost two games against Zambia and Ghana, but I could see that the team was coming of age. All I did was I told the players to take all the good attributes from those games and take them through to the COSAFA Cup. Then it just went very, very well."
The coach is keen to keep playing as many matches as possible. "I have recommended that we play friendlies in October and November against strong teams - teams that are ranked higher than Lesotho," said Notsi. "The team should always learn something out of those games, it should not be against lower ranked teams. It should be a bigger country. That would help us a lot."
Notsi would also like to see more Lesotho players playing outside the country. "Our league is not of very high standard," admitted Notsi. "Across the borders [in South Africa] the league is stronger, and the players would come back to the national team with a wealth of experience.
"They could add value to the national team set-up. Even if the players do not play at Premier League level, at second league level you would still find that the football is of a high standard and the boys would get a lot out of playing abroad."