Botswana exited their maiden CAF Africa Cup of Nations appearance on Wednesday night with a third defeat, but a keenly contested final game with Mali will have lifted their spirits as they head home. The Zebras were one of the shock qualifiers for the finals, writing a new chapter in their football history with a place in the 16-team tournament in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.

They ran group favourites Ghana close on their debut, only losing 1-0, but a 6-1 thumping in their second outing against a strong Guinean team left many questioning Botswana’s fitness. However a narrow 2-1 defeat to Mali from a late Seydou Keita goal has supporters thinking again about the positives gained from their CAN adventure.

One of Botswana’s stand-out players has been veteran Mogogi Gabonamong, who debuted as a 16-year-old centre-back in 1999 and has been one of the pivots for the side ever since. His versatility has seen the South Africa-based player evolve into the team’s key defensive midfielder. Just minutes after Botswana went down to Mali in Libreville, he reflected on the tournament experience and the future of football in the southern African nation. What was the CAF Africa Cup of Nations experience like for you?
Mogogi Gabonamong: It was imperative for us to come and enjoy it. It was a huge experience, even though we did not do well. The pace was a little bit quick, and it is obvious we still have a lot to learn. We need to strengthen our side in a couple of positions, so that we can manage situations better. I think it has been a good learning curve for us. It was not easy, but at least we never gave up. As our first experience at this level of competition, I think it wasn’t too bad even though we lost the second game by a high margin. We managed after that to rectify a lot of things.

You went toe-to-toe with Mali's Seydou Keita in midfield on Wednesday night and presumably got a chance to measure your own game against a world star?
That gives me a lot of courage and hope that I can improve on a couple of things. It shows that you can keep growing in football, no matter how long you’ve been playing. I don’t feel I need to look back but rather to think forward and to try and be a better player, to improve. It was an honour to be on the same field, but we can have more experiences like this if we focus on future success.

I think it (participating in the CAF Africa Cup of Nations) now gives our youngsters in Botswana much more hope and ambition for the future.

Botswana midfielder Mogogi Gabonamong

Where do you think Botswana is heading... Will there be more qualifications for major tournaments or was this a flash in the pan?
It’s up to the leaders back home exactly how they treat football. Football needs progress, it needs a lot more professional involvement. We are still amateurs in Botswana, so the football is not professional and it takes a lot to move it forward. It is a huge challenge that still lies ahead, otherwise it will be difficult for quite a long time to get back to competitions like the Nations Cup.

What is the one highlight you’ll take back home with you after your three matches in Gabon?
To me I feel part of a history-making side, and it will stay that way long after I have retired. As a kid, I never even dreamt of playing in a tournament like this, it wasn’t even thought about in Botswana. We never thought we’d ever have a chance. But we made it happen and to me that was a really big achievement. I think it now gives our youngsters in Botswana much more hope and ambition for the future.

Now you go back to your club, how do you come down from the pressure of the Cup of Nations?
I think it’s all about being a professional. You know, I have played football for a long time now, and I’m confident I’ll be able to smartly make the change. I’ll take that all in my stride, I’m sure. It’s all about the right mentality.