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Mares’ COSAFA heroics reveal silver lining

Reason to celebrate: Mares made history by reaching their first COSAFA tournament final
The women’s team, the Mares have unwittingly lived under the shadow of their male counterparts, the Zebras. But a brave fight down in Port Elizabeth in the last two weeks, revealed the team’s silver lining, and in the process, threw down the gauntlet at doorsteps of the powers-that-be at Lekidi Centre, writes MQONDISI DUBE

The Zebras have hogged almost all the limelight, as the men’s game has remained dominant across the local scene.

However, the women’s game has been making steady progress, with various interventions aimed at attracting the girl-child to the soccer field.

FIFA has been the driver, and this has cascaded to national associations who have introduced robust programmes to ensure women are given an equal opportunity in a game traditionally dominated by men.

Botswana’s domestic league has stuttered, but that has not deterred the national teams from rising above adversity.

Last year, the Mares went all the way to the semi-finals of the COSAFA Women’s Championships despite fielding a largely Under-20 side.

It was in the same year that the senior team registered a famous victory over perennial irritants, South Africa’s Banyana Banyana, dumping their more illustrious opponents out of the Olympic Games qualifiers.

South Africa is a known continental powerhouse, and qualified for the last World Cup in 2019. But Botswana is making strides of its own and the region is beginning to take notice of the significant steps up the ladder.

Botswana Football Association (BFA) has started to bank dividends accruing from their persistence with Gaolethoo ‘Ronaldo’ Nkutlwisang as coach.

Nkutlwisang is a long serving coach, and now knows her players like the back of her hand. Mares, like their male counterparts, were not strangers to drubbings, but that is slowly fading into the dustbins of history.

The team’s resilience was particularly magnified in the 2-1 victory over Zambia in the semi-final, a first over the Copper Bullets.

Despite peppering the Mares goal with a glut of shots, Botswana stood firm in one of the finest rear guard actions the team has ever put up.

Mares had two shots on target, and both landed in the net, while there were zero corners. Zambia’s Shepolopolo fired 36 shots at goal, but only managed one goal and a resilient Mares marched on to their first ever final.

The rear guard action reminded fans of the history-making Zebras of Stanley Tshosane, which grew in leaps and bounds, thanks to an impregnable defensive formation.

Nkutlwisang is maturing as a pragmatic coach, able to pick the right tools for a specific job. She knows when to shut shop or to spring a quick counter.  More often a round peg has been used for square purposes, resulting in a mismatch but the coach has rectified this and used the ‘fit-for-purpose’ approach. After the draining semi-final against Zambia, in which the Zebras were, to some measure, indebted to the brilliance of goalkeeper, Sedilame Boseja, a battle weary Mares was expected against a rampant Banyana Banyana in the final. Boseja was ultimately voted the best goalkeeper of the tournament.

South Africa had pumped six goals against Malawi in a slope-sided contest, but Mares refused to be the gentle lamb to the slaughter.

Despite conceding in the opening minutes against ‘Mzansi’, Botswana battled brilliantly, eventually going down 2-1.

It could mark a new chapter in the pecking order of national teams, with a reshuffle in thinking in the offing. Mares have previously suffered the unending ignominy of the power imbalances where they had to play second fiddle to their male counterparts, but with their COSAFA Cup run, they have made an unignorable statement of intent. Their silver medal could prove to be the ultimate silver lining, which might force a paradigm shift.


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