The unexpected emergence of previously unheralded Botswana among the 16 CAF Africa Cup of Nations finalists has by now been well documented. A fairy tale win away against group favourites Tunisia in their opening qualifier and then a series of momentum building results, which combined with a new-found confidence, catapulted them over the Cup of Nations qualifying line ahead of any other country.
Botswana had already booked their place at the finals months before the finish of the preliminaries and eventually ended a ten-match programme with only a solitary defeat. Now, with the tournament in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon just over a week away, the focus of the debutants is on holding their own among the elite of African football and proving they deserve a place at the table. Even more, Botswana are eager to show that their qualification was no ‘flash in the pan’ and signals the emergence of a golden generation set to put the southern African country on the footballing map.
The Zebras are in Cameroon to round off extensive preparations, which began in early December and have seen the team spend time at two separate camps in neighbouring South Africa before heading to Douala. “I would like to have begun our preparations in September already but this was not possible,” said coach Stanley Tshosane, the army officer who draws most of his squad from teams in the Botswana league and is a father figure to his players.
We were underdogs when we started qualifying, and we are underdogs now.
Tshosane had hoped a suspension of league activity would have allowed him the majority of his squad for an extensive period together, although seven of his players are based in South Africa and were only released by their respective clubs just after Christmas. “It’s the same as being in school - if you prepare well for your examinations, you will get good marks,” he adds bluntly.
However, Tshosane knows that his side have had a better opportunity than most of their rivals to come together as a team, and he hopes it will work to their advantage in a tough group at the finals. Botswana will be based in Franceville and have a Herculean task ahead in their opening game, against 2010 FIFA World Cup™ quarter-finalists Ghana on 24 January.
“It will not have been easy for them to have prepared to face us, we being something of an unknown quantity,” says Tshosane of the immediate task for his Black Stars counterpart. And the Zebras coach likes it that way: “We were underdogs when we started qualifying, and we are underdogs now.”
Playing to their strengths
Tshosane knows his dark horses have a few advantages to call on in the tournament: A newly found sense of self-belief, tinged perhaps with a touch of naivety, and plenty of fitness and pace. Botswana hope to be one of the most athletic and mobile sides at the finals. And having come together through the qualification process often means there is an intimacy in the group. “Our advantage is that we know our strengths and limitations and will work within them from the start.”
However, the coach admits their main worry is in the all-important attacking third. “We may not score many goals, but we are disciplined and don’t concede much. We adopt a patient approach, keep it tight and work hard and strike when opportunities presents themselves,” he said.
Jerome Ramatlhakwane was the joint top scorer in the preliminaries with five goals but has not played any club football for two years. A long running dispute with his South African club has now been settled, but he is lacking match practice. He and his team mates will be unknown figures to all but the Zebra supporters, but they could yet make their names on the big stage, the coach suggests.
Tshosane declares his side are ready and have their sights on a quarter-final berth despite the difficult Group D, which also includes Mali and Guinea. His ultimate goal is not dependent on how far they go in the event, but on the nature of their play. “We want to make the country proud during the tournament," he said simply.