The year 2011 witnessed the growth and impressive uprising of Botswana on the African football stage. Their exploits in the qualifying matches for the 2012 African Nations Cup competition to be held in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea have astonished many pundits and fans alike, and they will be making their first-ever appearance at next year's tournament as a result.
According to the 'experts', the Zebras stood no chance against a powerhouse team like Tunisia in the African Cup of Nations qualifiers, but those who spoke negatively about their ability to overcome the odds were made to eat their words, as Botswana became the first country to book a place at next year's Afcon tournament.
Perhaps what makes this success even more remarkable is the fact that a local coach has earned the country their debut at the continent’s greatest football extravaganza. Stanley Tshosane is the architect of this surprise package Zebras side.
The Botswana Premier Soccer League (PSL) has also become more competitive in recent years, with a number of teams aiming for title honours. This season eventual champions Township Rollers were pushed to the final days of the championship by the Centre Chiefs, before they were able to claim the trophy reserved for the best club in the country.
Their league, which in under the guidance of general manager Setete Phuthego should certainly be proud considering the clubs’ massive investments and commitment, which has seen the majority of the national team players plying their trade in the domestic league. It is without doubt that the sudden rise to stardom of the country, that many have often referred to as minnows, can be in part attributed to the overall improvement of the domestic league.
Youth football development has flourished in the landlocked country, with teams such as Uniao Flamengo Santos and Notwane Club standing out as notable success stories.
The league recently announced that all Premier League teams will have to provide U-15 and U-17 development teams next season as a requirement of being in the top flight. The league added that a player graduating to the first team must do so through the youth system.
The high amount of Botswana players in South Africa's Premier Soccer League has also been credited for the country’s success story in continental football. Nigeria, Zambia and Zimbabwe have been the largest supplier of talent to South African club teams in recent years, but there has been a significant increase in stars from Botswana plying their trade in the neighbouring country.
The Bosele Declaration of 2008 is also credited with improving Botswana football in a move to commercialise and professionalise football in the country. This saw the league’s sponsorship amounting to P24million (€2.5million) for the 2011-2015 seasons.
Legendary Ghanaian coach Ben Kouffie was an important element of the change in the nation's football that saw an emphasis on development of youth football, which is now bearing fruit. The Botswana Football Association (BFA) technical director from the late 1980s until well into the 1990s preached a message of development upon his arrival from Zimbabwe, where he was the national team coach.
Kouffie explained the importance of training the youth to be better footballers from a young age, and that way of thinking has paid off, as the results of the national team prove. The Botswana National Sports Council (BNSC)’s Reba Bona Ha project at Primary Schools is one of the initiatives focused on improving youth football, and it is already creating a few stars for the country, as U-23 national goalkeeper Kabelo Dambe is a product of this project aimed at uplifting the game.
Botswana has been an impressive force on the continent this past year, and much of that is down to the philosophy of development and the legacy it is now leaving for the nation. It will be interesting to see how the Zebras perform at next year's African Nations Cup, but they will already feel like they have achieved success, after qualifying for their first ever Afcon competition.