Not long ago, a draw against Botswana would not have sat well with Swaziland fans. But all of that has, of course, changed since the Zebras became the first team to join automatically qualified Gabon and Equatorial Guinea at the finals of the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations. Hence a goalless draw against their fellow south Africans last week has left Sihlangu caretaker coach Obed ‘Foreman Power’ Mlotsa brimming with confidence.
"Of course a draw against Botswana will encourage us,” he said. "We also played to a 1-1 draw against Malawi in another friendly match and that was also a good result for us. I think we did well in both matches and that gives me some hope for this weekend's match against Sudan."
Swaziland's greatest footballing triumph occurred in 2008 in the qualifiers for the 2010 Nations Cup, when they beat Togo, who two years previously were one of five FIFA World Cup™ representatives from Africa. "But since then, there has not been a lot of positive results for the team,” explained the caretaker coach. “But I think that fans can see that things seem to be changing. The players are working very hard and that is showing.”
Although Swaziland most likely have only a theoretical chance of escaping Group I, where Ghana and Sudan both have seven points and Congo three, Mlotsa is confident that his team can get their first points on the board in their fourth contest. "We have been in camp for a week and I have been able to work well with them. The side is preparing in a mature way, and I am confident that there is no reason why we should not go into the game looking for a good result," the 52-year-old said about his relatively inexperienced team. "I am very happy with the preparations. We have some injuries, but I think that I will be able to call on most of my players. Some of them are relative newcomers to the national side, so I have to do a lot of psychological work with them."
A new face on the coaching scene
Although he has actually reached an age where many coaches can already look back on a lengthy list of clubs and teams they have worked with, Mlotsa is a relative newcomer, and remarkably, the Sihlangu are the first team that he has coached. After South African coach Shakes Mashaba left the team to take on a more lucrative position with his nation's under-23 team, Swazi officials gave the coaching reins to the country’s Technical Director, Boy ‘Bizzah’ Mkhonta. He was in charge of the side in March when they lost their Nations Cup qualifier against Sudan in Khartoum 3-0. In that match both Mlotsa and Mbabane Swallows assistant coach Nyanga ‘Crooks’ Hlophe acted as assistants.
When Mkhonta stood down after the defeat in Khartoum, the national association turned to Mlotsa, giving him his first opportunity to coach a side. "I only took over the team two weeks ago. When I was asked if I could help the team, I decided that I could not say no," the former Swazi international, who now is assisted by Hlophe, said.
But even though he has not previously been in charge of a team, he is no newcomer to the coaching world. "I spent several months on coaching courses in Brazil, Denmark and Germany, and I have a lot of experience from them, even if I do not have the practical experience of coaching a team."
I think that fans can see that things seem to be changing. The players are working very hard and that is showing.
Mlotsa, who was born in rural Swaziland, but educated in the capital Mbabane, spent many years playing as a sweeper for Swaziland's glamour club Mbabane Highlanders and was chosen as his country's Footballer of the Year. "We played a lot of matches in African club competitions and this also gave me a lot of experience. I was with Highlanders for 25 years,” said the coach.
The family man, who has three children and works as an accountant and is also an aerobics instructor with a Brazilian qualification, is now hoping that a good showing with the national team will alert clubs to his coaching capabilities and enable him to embark on a full-fledged coaching career. He will also not rule out being appointed national team coach on a long-term basis. "But it is not something that I am expecting. I did not apply for the job, but obviously if I should be offered it, I would think about it. I am confident that I can coach any team that I am given,” he said defiantly.
On Sunday against Sudan, Mlotsa will be looking to straighten up a defence that has given up three goals in each of their previous matches. The Swazis know that if they fail to win they will likely be eliminated from having any chance of reaching the continental finals. Three points will not only keep them alive to fight another day, but it will buoy local supporters, who have not witnessed a home victory by the side since the end of 2009.