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Can a Zebra roar?

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  January 29, 2012 07:36 PM

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BONGOVILLE, Gabon -- Botswana is a sparsely populated, land-locked country in southern Africa acclaimed for its natural beauty, fauna, and civic stability.

It has never been known for soccer.

Until now.

Defying all expectations, the Botswana national team, long the whipping boy of African international play, stormed through AFCON qualifying, topping group K with a remarkable 17 points (5-2-1) and becoming the first team to book a trip to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.

It was the first time the Zebras had ever qualified for the AFCON finals.

The improbable run began in the usually impregnable fortress of Tunis on July 1, 2010 as the attention of the soccer world was directed to South Africa and the continent’s first World Cup.

Botswana triumphed 1-0 behind a Jerome Ramatlhakawne goal and a disciplined defense, a successful formula the team would repeat. The Zebras went on to defeat Chad at home, draw Malawi away, defeat Togo at home, and top Tunisia in Gaborone to seal the deal.

Goalkeeper coach Thabo Motang described the dawning awareness that something had changed.

“When we started, we just wanted to see how far we could go. We didn’t actually focus on coming here [to Gabon]. But then as time went on, we realized we could actually achieve what we wanted.

“After our first game, beating Tunisia, that game gave us motivation, but then the second game, we played Chad, we realized, no, no, no, we stand a chance here. Beating Togo at home, that’s when the Botswana people realized the team is going far here.”

Support for the national team has been so strong that the local company given the contract for replica jerseys has been unable to meet the demand.

The transformation from ridicule to respect is the story of a homegrown coach and a veteran team.

Stanley Tshosane was an assistant coach with the national team, left to coach the Army team in the domestic league, where he had played, then returned to take the reins when Englishman Colwyn Rowe was sacked in 2008.

The Botswana FA granted the new coach full control and Tshosane imprinted a defensive mindset on the team, selecting players who could mark well and usually deploying four defensive-minded midfielders.

The team has also benefited from being together throughout Tshosane’s tenure and is as locally bred as the coach. Although six of Botswana’s players earn a living in neighboring South Africa, most play semi-pro ball at home, and no one plays off the continent. AFCON 2012 may be the last showcase for many of the team's starters, whose average is 29.

The team’s moment in the limelight has not been without controversy. Before leaving for Gabon, the players complained publicly about inadequate bonuses, and the Botswana FA has inexplicably failed to offer the 55-year-old Tshosane a contract extension.

Botswana also had the misfortune of drawing into Group D, the toughest group at AFCON 2012, joining Ghana, Mali, and Guinea.

Captain and central defender Mombati Thuma reflected on the difference between qualifying and now.

“We expected a different mood from our qualifying games. These games are very, very, very tough. There is no weak team in this group.”

The Zebras opened against Ghana, the favorite of many to take the cup, falling 1-0 to a John Mensah goal off a corner kick, the team’s only defensive lapse of the night.

The road to the quarterfinals won’t get any easier. The Zebras faced an athletic Guinea side in Franceville Saturday then finish group play in Libreville against well-balanced Mali.

The Zebras will welcome back Diphetogo “Dipsy” Selowane, their team leader and most creative player, who missed the Ghana match because of accumulated yellow cards during qualification.

Selowane broke down the challenge for Botswana going into the Guinea match.

“Our guys have a lot of fight, a lot of character, so it is important to bring a whole lot more of that. The Guinea guys are very physical, very fast, so we have to match them with that, but try to use our skill at the same time.”

As the team trained at the modern stadium in Bongoville, a tranquil hamlet 40 minutes outside Franceville near the birthplace of the late Omar Bongo, Gabon’s long-tenured president, the mood was one of quiet determination.

The Zebras have two games to prove that their arrival on the big stage was more than a whisper.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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