For many years Botswana’s national team were known as the whipping boys of African football in the southern part of the continent, with their ‘Zebra’ nickname often turned against them into ‘the sleeping Zebras' and the like. The country of two million did not even attempt to qualify for the CAF Africa Cup of Nations or the FIFA World Cup™ until 1994, and they have in fact never come close to reaching a competition of that stature.
But now, the Zebras have awoken and become a threat as they enjoy a new-found zeal for life and a renewed penchant for scoring goals. The upswing has translated to a rather shocking position: atop 2012 AFCON qualifying Group K, where they are grouped with African powers Tunisia, talented Togo and tricky Malawi and Chad. Their run of ten points from four matches has not been a fluke, but the consequence of diligence and the guiding hand of coach Stanley Tshosane.
An important step back
A veteran in domestic football, Tshosane has given this Botswana team a new look and a remarkable new sense of belief, replacing self-doubt with a resolute defence, a disciplined engine and a pro-active attack, even though his team is minus the well-known faces of African football. Tshosane is quick to stress to FIFA.com that this turnaround has not been easy, and he points to a moment two years ago when hard choices were made.
“I came in May of 2008 as a caretaker coach, and I could see that the team had a lot of aging players, and there were a lot of things that I realised need to be overhauled,” he said. “In July of that year after we lost 4-0 to Côte D’Ivoire I sat down with my technical team, and I informed them that I wanted to take a risk by creating a new team.
"We were really struggling, and I think we just decided to go back to the basics and work on our game a bit. We have not been lucky, this is all thanks to hard work,” he said in protest to the view that their results have been a “string of good luck.”
He created a plan to take the team through the 2012 qualifiers, started working closely with local players and lining up many friendlies to aid in their development. “Although we do not have many resources, we have invested a lot in youth development,” he said. “We have been building this team for a while now. What people see is not a based on luck only or a fluke. The most important thing for us is to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations. That will be a major achievement for these boys, and they deserve it,” he said before adding slyly: “Because as you know we were the underdogs of our group, but, obviously, our approach has worked.”
Big match looming
But for all their work done, Tshosane is fully aware that at times it is the next hurdle that might be the trickiest. Three points against Tunisia, who will travel to Gaborone for a match on 17 November, could put the group beyond doubt and set Botswana on their way to history. They had the measure of the North Africans in July when they beat the heavy favourites 1-0 in Tunis, a win that Tshosane credits with the tone of the campaign.
“The win in Tunisia gave the players a huge boost in confidence,” he said. “They realized that they could really do it. They could beat Tunisia on their own ground. That was a very tough game, one of the toughest games we have played, but we managed to go through.”
But Tshosane admits that there is always “fear of the unknown,” so he says the team is looking to their remaining experienced players, like all-time scoring and caps leader 'Dipsy' Selolwane, to carry the mantle. For his part, Selolwane heaps praise on the chemistry that the coach has brought to the side. “He has brought with him a lot of stability,” he said recently. “I think the players are comfortable with him, and at the moment, people are just enjoying their football.”
Enjoyment is good, but Tshosane knows to expect some push back from the likes of four-time FIFA World Cup participants Tunisia and 2006 veterans Togo. “All these big teams want to return [to the finals], so it won't be easy, but we plan to change our strategy a little bit so that we continue to be a surprise,” said the coach. “Our goal is to go to the finals for the first time since being affiliated to CAF. I think this would be a very big present for our fans and our country as well.”