When the group stages of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers begin next year in October, Batswana and their beloved Zebras will be watching from the sidelines, perhaps with some sentimental alignments to South Africa and Zambia. The Zebras were sent tumbling out of the world cup competition when Mali beat them 2-0 in the second leg of the second round qualifier played in Bamako this past Tuesday.
On aggregate, Mali proceeded to the group stages via a 3-2 score line following Botswana’s historic 2-1 win in the first leg encounter played in Francistown over the past weekend.
What now remains is a familiar line up of African sides that always compete at the highest stages of continental and global football. The date of the draw for the groups is yet to be decided - the 20 countries will be drawn into five groups of four, where the winner will play in Russia. There were no upsets, and neighbours South Africa joined other sides that have competed at previous World Cup finals, being Nigeria, Tunisia, Ghana, Algeria, Senegal, Egypt, Ivory Coast and Cameroon. Surely the Zebras’ rebuilding project would benefit a lot from matches against these powerhouses of African football had they done a little more to beat Mali on aggregate.
In a classic case of ‘so near yet so far,’ the Zebras had only needed a draw in Bamako to end up at the group stages. Even a one goal margin loss where the Zebras would have scored at least two goals would have seen the local lads proceed to the third and final round.
Perhaps the soccer loving Batswana will now look back in despair at the two penalty decisions made in both the first and second legs of the tie with Mali. While it remains inexplicable why the Zebras were not awarded a 60th minute penalty when Kabelo Seakanyeng was cynically brought down inside the box in the Francistown match, supporters will equally find it queer how Mali were awarded the penalty that saw them take the lead in the first half of the Bamako duel. The foul in Francistown even warranted a straight red card to the Mali defender as Seakanyeng was in a goal scoring position when he was felled. Otherwise his fall – if it did not warrant a penalty - should have been deemed simulation on the part of the player and he should have been yellow-carded.
In Bamako, there was not much contact between the Zebras’ defender and the Malian striker who was adjudged to have been fouled. A comparison and analysis of the two transgressions clearly favours the foul committed in Botswana to have attracted a kick from the penalty spot. With the Bamako prosecution of the Zebras clearly a gift to the Eagles and the ignored foul in Botswana equally a let-off for the West Africans, simple logic that ignores other circumstantialities suggests that it is the Zebras who should have proceeded to the group stages via a 3-2 aggregate score – 3-1 in Francistown and 0-1 in Bamako.
Except the fact that the Zebras camp was a bit careless in their approach of the away fixture, the team generally fared well against a strong African side known to be multiple bronze medalist at the African Cup of Nations. Perhaps coach Peter Butler should have taken a leaf from his predecessor Stanley Tshosane or even David Bright who both had the habit of employing defensive tactics, whenever they played such level of opposition away from home. But the coach, accustomed to taking risks in his quest for success, stuck with his 3-5-2 formation that approached the away encounter the same way they did in Francistown. A change of tactics might have unsettled Mali into playing a waiting game, but for them, it must have been easy to throw everything at the Zebras seeing that they were already familiar with what the local lads had up their sleeves.
Both encounters also bring to the fore, the age-long concern of the Zebras always getting into competitive matches without thorough preparations. That the Botswana Football Association (BFA) has limited funds for all football-related operations has long been made public, and it has been worsened by the fact that the national team currently has no sponsors. About three weeks ahead of the Mali encounter, this publication made an appeal to government and other corporate entities to aid the preparation of the team as it was already clear that with the right mentality and preparedness, Mali could be beaten, home and away. The boys proved it in Francistown, yet with no benefit of a testing friendly match. It was bound to be difficult in Bamako, but perhaps a better performance on home soil would have sealed the deal. That would have happened with better preparations and perhaps with the addition of some bullish sniper striker in the mould of old horse Jerome Ramatlhakwane to finish up some of the wasted chances the team created in that Francistown encounter.
Playing in the group stages would have worked wonders for the rebuilding exercise of the team, and perhaps with the frenzy that was permeating the sporting atmosphere because of the team’s matches, more financial support in the form of sponsorships might have been attracted from those always looking to associate with a successful entity. Many jokingly attribute the Zebras’ loss to the sudden use of the Umbro kit after moving back to All Kasi for all the recent matches. It may sound far-fetched but perhaps the team handlers should also look into all possibilities relating to this matter. Perhaps it is something psychological, but team authorities say the decision was forced by Mali’s choice of their white strip for the match.
In the end, lessons have been learnt. Confidence has been built and some bravery has been achieved on the part of the players. The next focus for the Zebras now is qualification for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations with resumption of their Group D matches set for March 26 next year against Comoros. So far they have lost 2-0 to Uganda and have won 1-0 against Burkina Faso. Between now and that March encounter, what has been gained recently can all be lost in a flash should the team remain dormant without any engagements. The team should be able to qualify for the finals with the right support systems.