Botswana have an away date with Malawi in the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers on Wednesday and victory would give them a realistic chance of a maiden appearance at the tournament.
While the FIFA World Cup™ in neighbouring South Africa was heading toward a climax early last month, Botswana were making an unexpectedly good start in Group K of the biennial competition far from the international media glare. Known as the Zebras, the team from the sparsely populated southern Africa country that failed in nine previous attempts to make the biennial showcase of football on the continent defeated Tunisia 1-0 away and Chad 1-0 at home.
Winning in Tunis against the 2004 champions was one of the great upsets in five decades of Nations Cup qualifiers, a classic David-triumphs-over-Goliath tale. Although only ten places separate them on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, Tunisia are perennial contenders for places at the Nations Cup and FIFA World Cup while Botswana have never come close to reaching either tournament.
A Jerome Ramatlhakwane goal stunned the Tunisians and fellow South Africa-based footballer Phenyo Mongala struck the winner against Chad to leave Botswana with a maximum six points from two outings. That leaves them a four-point advantage over Togo and it would stretch to at least five if they match a 2006 Nations Cup performance when they beat Malawi 3-1 in economic capital Blantyre.
Target in sight
And with three of five other group fixtures at home, even hyper cautious Botswana coach Stanley Tshosane would have to accept that qualification for the 2012 tournament in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea was a realistic goal. The Zebras warmed up for Malawi with a 2-0 friendly home victory against neighbours Zimbabwe last week through early goals from Mokgathi Mokgathi and Ramatlhakwane. "We performed well against opponents who gave us a good game. The team are continually improving and we look forward to the match against Malawi," said the victorious coach.
Rival and former star national team striker Kinnah Phiri guided the Malawi 'Flames' to a 1-1 draw in Togo in their only outing and believes home advantage could prove crucial at Kamuzu Stadium. "Playing at home you are always confident of delivering a win for supporters. My team are focused only on victory," said the coach who last January took Malawi to the CAF Africa Cup of Nations for only the second time.
Although Botswana have returned triumphant from just three of 25 Nations Cup away engagements, Malawi have a modest home record of 13 victories, 11 draws and 16 defeats. Eliminated after drawing all three first-round games in Angola this year, Tunisia cannot afford another defeat when they face Chad in N'Djamena, where even late-afternoon matches are often played in furnace-like conditions.
Recently hired coach Bertrand Marchand has shuffled his defence pack with Ammar Jemal and Anis Boussaidi recalled and France-born Yohan Benalouane given a first Carthage Eagles call-up. Group K is the only five-team mini-league after the late inclusion of Togo and the top two finishers qualify while action in the ten pools with four countries begins early next month.