After a full month of speculative talk and penmanship, familiar African football foes Botswana and Mali finally get to meet this Saturday to begin a decision process of who proceeds to the group stages of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
The two sides meet on the backdrop of Botswana’s recent 5-1 aggregate victory over Eritrea in the first round preliminary qualifier that occasioned this weekend fixture at the Francistown Sports Complex that has of late been a good hunting ground for the hosts.
These African football jungle adversaries – the Zebras of Botswana and the Eagles of Mali – have a long history of scuffles that date back to 1994 and 1995 with the qualifiers for Africa Cup of Nations that would be hosted next door by South Africa in 1996.
Incidentally, it is Mali who have always triumphed in the five previous encounters dating up to 2012. Home and away ahead of the 1996 AFCON finals, the Eagles choked the Zebras in an avalanche of goals. On November 7, 1994 in Gaborone, Tumie Duiker scored a consolation goal late in a match that the Zebras lost 3-1. On the return match in Mali on July 16, 1995, the Eagles posted four goals past the Zebras in a group that also included Guinea, Angola, Mozambique and Namibia.
The second time the sides met was at the 2012 AFCON finals in Gabon where the Eagles once again narrowly triumphed 2-1 in a comeback performance that had seen Mogakolodi Ngele give the Zebras a 1-0 lead. The Eagles would later that same year be paired with the Zebras in a two-legged play-off for a place in the 2013 AFCON finals that were played in South Africa, and the locals were sent packing after Mali won 3-0 in Bamako and 4-1 in the second leg played in Lobatse where Musa Ohilwe scored in the last minute of the match.
Thus the West Africans hold an imposing record of five wins in five matches with a scoring tally of 16 goals against Botswana’s paltry three.
It is against this background that when the two sides meet again in their sixth encounter this weekend, it is the Eagles who will descend on the Francistown turf the overwhelming favourites. Yet this is a side Ngele has enjoyed playing against, and might just be motivated to do even better against them this time around. What more with the lanky goal-scoring machine playing at city of Francistown where he recently mesmerized the Eritreans with his two goals then the icing on the cake.
Ngele remains one of the three players in the current Zebras’ squad to have faced Mali at the 2012 AFCON finals. With the other players being Lemponye Tshireletso and Boitumelo Mafoko, Mali will practically be facing a whole new team and may find that they know little about what the other Zebras’ players have in store for them.
On the other hand, Mali has included about ten of the players who faced Ngele and Tshireletso and Mafoko in that encounter, inclusive of the substitutes. They include goalkeeper Oumar Sissoko, Adama Tamboura, Ousmane Coulibaly, Moustafe Yatabare, Cheick Diabate and Modibo Maiga. Other Mali players in the current team and who were at the 2012 AFCON finals include Soumaila Diakite, Abdou Traore and Samba Sow. It could be an advantage to the Zebras if they are able to plan well against opponents they already know and have seen play.
Ngele, Mafoko and Tshireletso may feel they have a point to prove playing against the same players they have faced before, which confidence might rub on to the whole team. On the other hand, Mali brings a team that has been playing together since then, and their understanding of one another coupled with European football experience might just prove daunting for the locals.
Mali have been finishing in podium places at the recent AFCON finals, attaining third place in the 2012 and 2013 finals. This year, Mali missed out on an AFCON quarter final berth via a draw of lots after they and Guinea were tied on points at position 2 in their group behind eventual tournament winners Ivory Coast.
Thus the Zebras’ followers must not be surprised when the Eagles become the eventual winners after the second leg of this tie to be played next week in Bamako. The entire Saturday game is only the first half, with the final decision of who goes to the group stages to be made in Mali. Thus it is important for the Zebras to play for a convincing win at home knowing that a bigger challenge lies ahead.
The Zebras can bank on their recent consistency where they beat other continental powerhouses Burkina Faso. The locals have been playing a lot of confidence and their defence has been watertight. Forcing Mali to return to their home turf with no away goal should thus be the Zebras’ main priority in the hope of them scoring their first goal in Bamako.
The added experience of Joel Mogorosi, Ofentse Nato and Kabelo Dambe should help calm the nerves of the newer and younger ones, and an incessantly raucous Francistown crowd should aid in sending the Zebras to another historic victory. This could be the time for Hendrick Moyo, Omaatla Kebatho and Segolame Boy to shine. As long as the crowd does not cow down and go silent in the event of a Mali goal, the Zebras, with this mix of players, should go all the way to to continue their giant killing spree. The national team’s time to beat Mali is now!