Swaziland have never qualified for a major tournament, but they find themselves top of their CAF Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) qualifying group after two games, despite being the bottom seeds.
With four fixtures remaining, the Sihlangu are currently leading a pack that includes Guinea, Malawi and Zimbabwe, a remarkable achievement for a nation that was ranked 48 out of 52 by CAF when the qualifying groups were drawn in April 2015.
“Swaziland is a very small country, but the people here are crazy about football,” head coach Harries Bulunga told FIFA.com. “They want to see their team at the Africa Cup of Nations. They’re used to seeing other countries playing there but not their own. If we were to qualify, it would be something that the nation could celebrate as a whole. To qualify would be almost like winning the tournament itself.”
Victory in Casablanca
It all started back in June 2015 for the spirited underdogs with a shock away victory against Group L giants Guinea, an encounter staged nearly 5,000 miles from Swaziland in Casablanca, Morocco as a result of the Ebola crisis in Western Africa.
With Guinea occupying a spot 117 places ahead of Swaziland in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking at the time, a win for the 2015 AFCON quarter-finalists seemed inevitable. The spirited southern Africans pulled off a shock, however, claiming their first-ever away win in an AFCON qualifier, courtesy of a 2-1 victory.
"No-one gave us a chance when we went out there,” said Bulunga, affectionately known as 'Madze'. “But as a team, we had belief and we were very organised.
“It’s was an impressive result, not just because we had to go to Morocco, but because of the quality that Guinea have, with players in respected European leagues such as France and Belgium. We did a lot of preparation and the team showed great character to travel such a long distance and get a win. It has been the best result so far during my reign as coach.”
Unlike Group F rivals Guinea, Malawi and Zimbabwe, minnows Swaziland have just one player plying their trade outside of the domestic scene. In January, frontman Mthunzi Mkhontfo made the move to DR Congo outfit AS Vita, a transfer that made him the most expensive player in Swazi history.
"When we started the qualifiers, all of the players played in Swaziland," said Bulunga. "We have experienced players, like our captain Tony Tsabedze, who leads by example and scored the two important goals in Morocco against Guinea.
"And we also have promising up-and-coming players too, so the balance of the team is good. It’s a nice blend of wisdom and youth."
March on the Warriors
Swaziland’s AFCON qualifying campaign resumes on 25 March with a double-header against Zimbabwe, a side they only lead by goal difference at the top of Group L. Expectation of the minnows may have risen on the back of 2015’s valiant results, but Bulunga has urged his players to stick to what they know best ahead of the two tests against the Warriors: hard work.
“The two games against Zimbabwe are essentially do or die for us,” asserted Bulunga. “If we can come out with at least four points from those two games, then we can start dreaming about AFCON. If we were to qualify, it would go down as one of the biggest upsets in world football. For us, it is about believing that we can do it.
“But our philosophy for now is simple: base everything on hard work. We work hard in training and do our best to translate that into a match. With that philosophy, we’re confident we can come up with a result no matter who we play.”