Gaborone: Not many years ago, Botswana, a country well known for its game reserves, was an unknown entity in the world of soccer.
Their road to success in international football started three years back in 2008. This year the team was nominated for Confederation of Africa Football (CAF) awards, for team of the year, alongside Cote d`Ivoire. Botswana went on to be crowned African team of the year at the awards ceremony held in Accra, Ghana last week Thursday.
The national soccer team, the Zebras had never qualified for any major event, either within Africa or internationally before 2008. The only competition they were often sure of qualification was the regional Council of Southern Africa Football Associations (COSAFA) challenge, where they never even reached the finals in its years of existence.
The only time they came close was when they reached the semi-finals as hosts in 2006, then under the tutelage of British born coach Colwyn Rowe.
It was not surprising that at the time the team was tagged as "the whipping boys of African soccer." Winning was something foreign and very rare for the team.
It took them exactly 11 years sinc 1994 to win their first match in the World Cup qualifiers, a 4-1 victory over Lesotho in 2005 for the 2006 event that was hosted by Germany. They went on to play in the group stages but finished last.
For the AFCON it was the same story as they failed dismally to qualify, often registering heavy losses against north and west African opponents. Among the notable foreign coaches who have been in charge of the national team are Germans Rudi Gutendorf and Karl-Heinz Marotzke as well as Serbian Veselin Jelusic (2002-2006) and Rowe (2006-2008).
Among the coaches, Veselin and Rowe are credited for having played a major part in the team`s revolution. Though he did not achieve any notable success with the team, Veselin brought some level of respect as he managed to match some African powerhouses in terms of play.
One notable game was in the qualifiers for the 2004 AFCON when they played former champions Tunisia in Gaborone. The Zebras put up a sterling performance scoring first through Mogogi Gabonamong. Though they went on to lose the match 3-2, future opponents started taking the team seriously, not expecting a walk in the park.
Veselin quit at the end of the qualifiers for the 2006 AFCON and was redeployed by the Botswana Foobball Association (BFA) to coordinate youth development in the country. In came a relatively unknown Briton Colwyn Rowe, who prior to his appointment as Zebras head coach was involved with youth soccer in Jordan.
Rowe brought in some new faces, from the under-23 side that achieved success in the 2008 Olympic qualifiers, something his predecessors were criticised for failing to do.
Under Rowe, the team started playing some enterprising football, centered around passing the ball swiftly. Botswana was drawn in a tough group for the 2008 AFCON qualifiers that included defending champions Egypt. Rowe`s young squad however put an outstanding performance in front of the home crowd in Gaborone holding the Egyptians to a goalless draw.
The team was on the verge of qualifying in their final group match in Cairo, but fate was against them as they narrowly lost 1-0 to miss out on qualifying for the continental showpiece.
Rowe was very unpopular with the local media, a thing many believe lead to his ultimate sacking in 2008. Rowe was replaced by a local, Stanley Tshosane, a retired army colonel, who had managed the national team before.
Tshosane did not make any instant changes to the team. Tshosane pulled a shock result holding the Ivorians to a 1-1 draw in his first assignment at home. The team showed some sparks of brilliance though they went on to be thumped 4-0 by the Ivorians on the return leg.
By December 2010, the team reached their highest ever FIFA ranking, 53rd. They started drawing interest from tougher opposition, playing a friendly match against Sweden at the beginning of 2011, which they narrowly lost 1-0.
Coach Tshosane and striker Ramatlhakwana also received nominees for best coach and best player respectively. Though they did not win the individual awards, Botswana went on to be crowned African team of the year at the awards ceremony held in Accra, Ghana last week Thursday. The award came as a true Christmas present for many soccer lovers in the country. The nation rejoiced, marking the end of a very prosperous year for them in soccer.
"It was indeed a remarkable year for us. Though we have not yet won any major trophy, we achieved a lot by qualifying for AFCON and winning a CAF award," BFA President David Fani was quoted as saying by Xinhua.
"We will continue working hard so that we can be counted among the best, I am very grateful for the team," he said.