Thursday, July 28, 2011
How Botswana stunned Africa
A year ago, when Stanley Tshosane, the Botswana coach, announced at a media conference in Gaborone that his team aimed to emerge unbeaten from their African Nations Cup (ANC) qualifiers, people laughed at him. The Zebras had never even reached the continental showpiece, never mind come through its preliminary stages unscathed.
"They thought to themselves, 'This coach is drunk'," Tshosane told ESPNsoccernet. "One man actually even said that if we managed to qualify for the tournament, he would walk naked through Gabarone Mall."
Tshosane let them jeer. He and his squad of hopefuls had made a promise to each other and, even if no-one else believed in them, they were going to see it to completion. "I remember it well. We made the agreement on June 13, 2010, that we would not be beaten," he said.
It seems an unrealistic pact to make, especially when you have never been ranked inside the top 100 football teams in the world, never come close to qualifying for the World Cup and never been seen as anything other than continental whipping boys. But it wasn't a fanciful notion, either. Botswana had been planning their coup of Africa for two years before that, under Tshosane's watchful eye. He had been involved with the sport for most of his life and taken the Botswana Defence Force XI to four league titles; in his second stint as national coach, he was tired of watching them underperform. After a 4-0 drubbing by Ivory Coast in a World Cup qualifier in June 2008 in Abidjan, Tshosane decided to work out his own plan to present to the Botswana Football Association (BFA) to carve out the road to success.
Tshosane started by spelling out the problems. "Our preparation was poor at that stage. We did not spend enough time working out plans," he said. "Also, our approach was not good enough to compete with big countries. We didn't offer our players appropriate incentives either." Then, he proposed a few, simple changes that could be made, claiming: "I suggested that we play more friendlies and that we use the time that the World Cup was on in South Africa as a period to train back home."
Botswana played 15 friendly matches between June 2008 and their first AFCON qualifier in July 2010, against countries geographically close to them such as Zimbabwe and Lesotho but also against the likes of New Zealand, Iran and China. Since Tshosane's resolution to get more game time, three years ago, Botswana have played 30 matches, of which 21 have been friendlies. To put that volume in context, it is more friendly games than either Brazil or Ghana played over the same period.
While the continent was watching with awe the build-up to, and goings-on in, South Africa during the World Cup last year, Botswana's football team were in training. It was an ideal opportunity to have the full squad available for an uninterrupted period. Ten days before Spain become World champions, Botswana travelled to their first AFCON qualifier, against Tunisia in their own backyard, with a sly plan in place.
"We would have made a blunder if we tried to match them because we cannot compete with a side like that either technically or tactically," Tsoshane said. "Pound for pound, we would lose to them." It sounded very much like the Zebras went in anticipating defeat when, in fact, they simply approached the game realistically.
"We tried to close spaces in own half and defend correctly. When we got that right and made sure it was not easy for them to score against us, we could play the counter-attacks and move up fast," he added The defensive style of play worked and Botswana came up 1-0 winners over the Carthage Eagles.
A year later, they have used the same method to record wins against Chad, Togo and Tunisia again, this time at home, as well as two draws against Malawi to qualify for their first ANC, with a match to spare. Botswana also went unbeaten in 2010. Theirs is not the most eye-catching way to go about playing football, but Tshosane sees it as a successful approach to working within limitations. "I know there is nothing very entertaining in the way we score goals because we focus on getting the defence right," he said.
Nonetheless, he still has a vision of one day producing a Latin-like flair on the pitch, maintaining: "I like the flow of South American football and I hope we can emulate Brazil." Tshoshane has attended two coaching courses in Brazil and was planning on taking the Botswana team for a training camp there next month. Logistics have become too complicated and instead the team have settled for a visit to the High Performance Centre (HPC) in South Africa and are planning a trip to somewhere "up more north than where we are in Africa" such as Kenya in order to acclimatise to conditions that will be similar to those in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, where next year's ANC will take place.
Seven of Botswana's international squad play in South Africa, including star defender Mogogi Gabonamong and top striker Jerome Ramathlhakwane, and were unable to join the camp because of club commitments. Tshosane did not see the players' absence as a club vs. country clash and instead said that South African football had done a lot for the increased professionalism among Botswana players. "The players who play in the South African league come back with confidence. They are exposed to a high level of competition and facilities that we don't have at home," he said.
At the HPC, the Botswana team currently has access to specialist coaches, physical trainers and nutritionists and are combining training sessions with theoretical study, which Tshosane thinks will make them even stronger come the continental showpiece. "I have never seen my players so motivated," he said. "I also want to meet some of the South African coaches to learn from them. I think if we get as much as information as possible and prepare well, we will be able to compete well."
It's important that he used the word compete, because there are still some in Botswana who think that Tsoshane will be satisfied with simply participating in ANC. One such disgruntled person has formed a Facebook group called Get Tshosane Out of Zebras. The creator of the page, Kenneth Sykes Ramakaloi, calls Tshosane the "most fortunate coach in the world" because "to coach a team with no talent is a huge feat". He has also dismissed the national coach as a "non-tactician" and "incompetent." The group has 64 members out of a country of just over two million.
Tshosane is aware of such doubters and dismisses the group as nothing major. "In life you will always have opposition," he said. "Football is all about results. As long as I get that right, people will start to respect me." People like the man who threatened to streak if Tshosane and his men made history by qualifying for African Nations Cup. "He didn't do it in the end, but he did apologise publicly to all of us," Tshosane revealed.