Swaziland football fans have not been treated to much success – either from their national team or from clubs competing in international competitions. However, that has begun to change this year with both the Sihlangu and Swazi club sides putting the small southern African country on the footballing map.
At the beginning of the year, Swaziland were ranked 164th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking and two defeats in friendly matches (in Burkina Faso 5-1 and at home against South Africa 3-1), saw them slump to 176th in May. But it was not only gloom and doom for the Kingdoms' football fans, as the five-time league champions Royal Leopards embarked on a historic campaign in the CAF Confederations Cup. The Ingwe Mabalabala participated in the competition as Swazi cup winners, even though as winners of the league, they could have also participated in the CAF Champions League.
The Simunye-based team faced South African PSL side Bidvest Wits in the preliminary round. The much-fancied South African team had few problems in the first round and won 3-0 but were shocked away from home as they lost by the same score and were knocked out on penalties. Leopards continued their fairytale run in the first round, stunning Petro de Luanda with a 1-0 victory in Angola after being held to a 2-2 draw at home. Although Leopards were knocked out in the next round by last-year's losing Champions League finalists Vita Club, they managed to beat their opponents in Swaziland in the first leg.
In early July the Leopards repeated their success against their rich neighbours, as they beat South African giants Orlando Pirates in the Kings Super Cup. Goalkeeper Mphikeleli Dlamini said that they had always believed in their chances. “The idea from the onset was to avoid worshipping them. Instead, we planned to match them pound for pound, which we did excellently to make a clear statement about the standard of football in the country.”
Players take club success to Sihlangu
Swaziland national coach Harris 'Madze' Bulunga has built his team around players from Leopards and Swallows and not surprisingly, the success the Leopards enjoyed in the continental competition, rubbed off on the national team. The Sihlangu were one of the surprises at the regional COSAFA Cup played in South Africa in May, beating Tanzania and Lesotho in their opening group games before drawing 1-1 with Madagascar. The result saw them being knocked out on goals scored as both teams had the same number of points and the same goal difference, but it was a good sign.
“When I assembled my squads I took Leopards' success into consideration, and it had definitely given the players a lot of confidence and that in turn rubbed off on the other players. Many of them have greatly improved,” said Bulunga, who also pointed to a new mentality in the organisation, saying: “The upsurge of the national team is, of course, not only due to Leopards. We have instituted a change of approach. We are using younger players and are looking for talent instead of physical attributes. We have instilled a work ethic and are looking for players who have the mentality to work hard on the pitch.”
Bulunga then took his side to Guinea for their opening 2017 CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifier and again the Swazis stunned their illustrious opponents, winning 2-1. One of the few Swaziland players who can look back on having played outside the country, Tony Tsabedze, scored both goals for his side. The striker, who played for several PSL sides in South Africa and is again being targeted by several PSL clubs, captains the side. What made Tsabedze's match-winning performance even more stunning – and poignant – is that he played despite the recent death of his son.
“I will be honest the win away to Guinea came as a surprise,” admitted Bulunga. “I thought the best result we could get was a draw. But given the run we have had I thought we could do well. It was a tough match, but we showed a lot of technical expertise. The way we played is how we have been playing. But knowing how strong Guinea is and the players they have, I thought a draw would be a good result.”
Swaziland's recent success has seen the country climb in July to 138th in the world – a rise of 24 from the June ranking. No other team in Africa had a bigger move and Swazi football fans are now hoping that their country's success stories keep on going – just as they have since the beginning of the year.