After 11 years with the Botswana national team, Diphetogo ‘Dipsy’ Selolwane has experienced enough highs and lows to be able to make the assertion that his side are in “unfamiliar territory”.
As one might expect, the country’s highest-profile footballer has insightful perspective on the game and he is tempered in his prognosis as he ponders the possibility of shock qualification for his country to the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations.
The Zebras, currently ranked 93rd in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking and long considered among the minnows of African football, have got off to a phenomenal start in Group K of the qualifiers for the next finals, to be co-hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. After the opening three matches in the five-team group, Botswana have gained seven points and a handy lead over the chasing pack.
A home win over Togo in Gaborone on Saturday in their fourth game of the campaign will see them consolidate their position at the head of the standings. “I think we are serious candidates,” Selolwane told FIFA.com. “We already have seven points but we have to take it easy; one game at a time, each as it comes. But with each point we gain, we are getting closer to achieving what many thought would be impossible.
“This is a team that has grown and matured. I’ve been playing in the national side since 1999 and seeing the potential of the young guys of today makes me realise they are way better than we were at the same age.”
Selolwane has been through enough frustrating campaigns in the past with Botswana to value the excitement of their sudden accession to the section’s summit and a possible place at the finals, which would be a first for the sparsely populated southern African country. Botswana shocked even themselves in June when they started the qualifying campaign with a 1-0 win away in Tunisia, their first-ever victory over a major African footballing nation.
“When the team left for Tunisia, it left as if it was a secret,” continued the 32-year-old. “There was no send off, no one seemed remotely interested. But the attention since beating Tunisia has been immense. The buzz is coming back to our national team. It’s like we are forgotten heroes. We are in unfamiliar territory, but we must just take it easy.”
Botswana have since beaten Chad at home and taken a valuable point away in Malawi, who qualified for the last Nations Cup finals in Angola. Yet despite the warnings to ‘take things easy’, the former Chicago Fire and Real Salt Lake striker admits that the weight of expectation is acting as an unfamiliar burden.
“It’s most important to win all our home games, but it’s more difficult now with the expectation placed on us by the crowd. The fans expect us now to win every game since we beat Tunisia. However, each point we do get emboldens the team, it builds morale and gives us more belief.”
With five games to go and a possible 15 points up for grabs, Botswana and their Group K opponents still have a lot to play for. However, if their form continues and they enjoy a little bit of luck, it could be the Zebras crossing the line from underdogs to over-achievers.