With its strong currency and high standard of living, Botswana is often held up as an example of what democracy and economic prudence can achieve in Africa.

On the football field, however, this nation of less than two million citizens has been unable to sustain much in the way of success and has struggled to compete regularly with top teams. As a consequence, the achievement of the country's U-23 team in reaching the group phase of African qualifiers for next year's Olympic Football Tournament is being widely celebrated.

Botswana's National stadium was certainly packed to its 22,000-capacity for the recent visit of Tunisia, with the enthusiastic crowd ignoring the threat of a thunder shower to cheer on the Young Zebras, known in the Tswana language as Dipetsana, to a 1-0 win secured by a second-half goal from Moemedi Moatlhaping.

It was an emotional and historic win for coach David Bright and his charges, particularly when one considers the strength of their Tunisian opposition, who were captained by Lokomotiv Moscow's Chaker Zouaghi and also featured the goalscoring talents of Yassine Chikhaoui.

South Africa squeeze through
Six other teams from the southern Africa region were also hoping to advance alongside Botswana to the list of the last 12 qualifiers, who will be divided into three groups of four for the league phase of the competition, which starts in June. As it was, however, only South Africa and Zambia managed to come through the last of knockout rounds.

The South Africans, whose side are likely to provide the bulk of the country's national team when they host the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ , drew 0-0 away in Uganda. Nevertheless, they rode their luck at times, with the hosts missing a myriad of chances and finding South Africa's goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune on top form.

Zambia, meanwhile, overcame neighbours Malawi, this as the likes of Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe all crashed out. A 1-1 draw away in Blantyre was enough for the Zambians, while Malawi's new national coach Steve Constantine was given a dispiriting first look at his future charges. "We were technically and tactically naïve," was Constantine's candid post-match verdict following a 4-3 aggregate defeat.

Two former winners advance
Elsewhere, Mozambique's Mambinhas registered a 3-2 home win at Maputo's Estadio Primeiro Maio on Sunday, with goals from Mendes, Cantona and Jumisse, but went out on the away goals rule to Mali after their 1-0 defeat in the first leg in Bamako in early February. Angola, meanwhile, were defeated 2-0 in Guinea, while Zimbabwe lost away in Yaounde against Cameroon.

A 3-1 win for Cameroon, who won Olympic gold in Sydney in 2000 , saw them comfortably through on aggregate with goals from Christian Bekamenga, Carl Lombe and Frejus Tchetgna. Zimbabwe played the last 20 minutes with just 10 men after substitute Talent Maphosa received his marching orders.

Egypt's loss to Côte d'Ivoire has heaped yet more pressure on under-fire coach Nelo Vingada, brought over from Portugal with the specific task of qualifying the north Africans for the Beijing Games. On Saturday, the Egyptians were beaten 3-1 after a 1-1 draw in February's first leg in Cairo, this despite taking the lead in the first quarter-hour of the return match in Abidjan. Dutch-based Sekou Cisse scored twice as the Ivorians turned the result around.

Also advancing are Ghana, Morocco and Nigeria, who became the first African country to win gold at the Olympics when they climbed to the summit of the winners' podium in Atlanta in 1996 .