Lesotho’s national side may not have played a competitive international since the last FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers, but there has been no laid back break for the footballers from the mountain kingdom, which is completely surrounded by South Africa.
Likuena (The Crocodiles) will make a return to international action in November when they take on the Swallows of Burundi over two legs in the first stage of the African preliminaries for Brazil 2014. Their last full competitive game came in Sekondi in October 2008 when they lost away to Ghana 3-0 to complete a run of six successive losses in their difficult South Africa 2010 qualifying group, which also included Libya and Gabon.
The failure to secure even a point was an unexpected setback for the side and led to some serious soul searching for the country of just two million people. After playing a handful of friendlies and putting in a solid performance in the regional COSAFA Cup in 2009 came a decision to leave the national side on hiatus - skipping qualifying for the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations - and put resources and effort instead into the youth teams and talented players coming through the development system.
But Lesotho’s tiny population, its landlocked position and its threadbare sporting infrastructure have previously been little impediment to their relative competitiveness in football. The Basotho national side finished second in 2000’s COSAFA Cup, and in the past they have beaten the likes of Cameroon, Angola and Zimbabwe as well as drawn away in the cauldron that is Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Building on youth
Having previously been appointed interim coach of the senior side in September of 2009 after the sacking of Serb Zavisa Milosavljevic, Leslie Notsi was primarily tasked with coaching Lesotho’s under-20 side and given the immediate ambition of garnering a place at the 2011 African Youth Championships. Lesotho achieved that goal in the most splendid fashion, eliminating regional rivals Mozambique, neighbours South Africa and Kenya in the qualifiers. They won both away legs in the latter two ties to ensure only the second-ever appearance for a Basotho side at a continental youth championship.
The finals tournament did not deliver on dreams of a place at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia, but it did serve as invaluable international experience for the youthful group, which Notsi praised for their “speed, teamwork and the technical awareness.” And, in line with the policy of the Lesotho Football Association, the coach has now promoted the bulk of that under-20 side to the senior squad and, is also looking to mix them with players who have much more acumen at full international level.
“The President of the FA said he wanted 80 per cent of the new national team to come from the under-20s but after further discussion we agreed on 60 per cent,” said Notsi, who feels his youngsters will be better served having the likes of Lehlomela Ramabele and Bushy Moletsane, who play at clubs in Botswana, and the Tunisian-based Bokang Mothoana alongside them in Lesotho colours. Long-standing captain Lehlohonolo Seema will not be able to compete against Burundi because of a recurring injury, but Notsi feels he still has a role to play as a mentor. “A bit like what David Beckham did for England at the World Cup finals last year,” he added.
Recent positives give hope
Lesotho have already had a handful of warm-up friendlies, beating surprise CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers Botswana away and drawing with Swaziland. On Monday they take on Namibia in Windhoek as they continue to fine-tune the youthful squad for the Brazil 2014 qualifiers, which give the continent's minnows a rare chance to capture the spotlight.
Notsi knows the limitations of his team and the small pool of talent he can choose from, but he says he has hopes that his team's lack of inhibitions will help transcend the pressure of the two-legged tie against Burundi, a side which the Crocodiles have never met before. Should Lesotho succeed, they will be through to the group phase where a slot awaits in a daunting table alongside Ghana, Sudan and Zambia. “If the boys can be as consistent and committed as they showed against Botswana when we played them in that friendly [in August], then I think we can give Burundi a run for their money,” said Notsi.