The Zebras’ slide in the FIFA rankings has continued at an alarming rate since their historic qualification to the 2012 Africa Cup Of Nations finals. Staff Writer Mqondisi Dube traces a slide that shows no signs of abating
The Zebras journey up and down football’s ladder has been littered with extreme contrasts.
There was a period when the team was largely acknowledged as ‘whipping boys’ before light emerged at the end of the tunnel between 2004 to 2006. It was a period when Veselin Jelusic was in charge and instilled a sense of new belief as the team went toe-to-toe with continental giants such as Morocco and Egypt. It was a team built around a solid defence, as the experience of several stars proved telling. The togetherness was evident as Botswana began to shed the unwanted ‘whipping boys’ tag.
The Zebras were ranked 165th in 1999, their worst to date. However, they are back, hovering precariously close to that ranking at number 150, after the latest FIFA rankings released on April 7, 2021.
There has been debate over the authenticity of the rankings but they remain valid and have a telling effect particularly when competition draws are conducted.
Zebras’ steady climb started at the turn of the millennium. At the end of 2000, the team was ranked number 150 and were three places worse, a year later. There was a significant jump at the end of 2002, as the Zebras galloped to 136th, with Veselin now in charge.
By 2005, the Zebras had almost broken into the top 100, as the team recorded impressive results, including a memorable 3-1 away win to Kenya.
This marked arguably the most successful period for the team as supporters woke up from an induced slumber. Zebras’ road shows became the new culture as supporters’ clubs sprout throughout the country. It was always a beautiful sight to behold as a blue, black and white nation drowned in endless euphoric moments. The team had emphatically shed its whipping boys tag and was ready for the next step. Qualification to a major tournament had remained elusive, but that was hardly a train smash as unerring desire and commitment emerged. The future was then and many felt it had arrived. It was Botswana’s turn to take its place amongst the continent’s football elite.
However, following the departure of Veselin and the arrival of Colwyn Rowe in 2006, the momentum lost considerable steam, and a period of consolidation beckoned.
But the rankings remained steady, alternating between 101 and 118 between 2006 and 2009.
In 2008, Stanley Tshosane was put in charge during a relatively flat period for the team. The road shows were then becoming a distant memory, and interest in the team had waned to new lows.
In the middle of the disinterest, Tshosane applied the kiss of life and engineered a memorable victory that would set the Zebras on the path to restoration and redemption.
The Zebras flew out to Tunisia in July 2010 for their first 2012 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier. Focus then was firmly on the World Cup, which South Africa was hosting. Little attention was paid to the departing Zebras.
They returned victorious after a first 1-0 victory
But they defied odds and by March 2011, they had already secured their first ever qualification, becoming the first side to book their place in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. The sparkling period saw the Zebras rise to their best ranking of 53 in 2010, which is yet to be bettered. The Zebras were amongst nominees for the CAF national team of the year in 2010. On the other hand, Jerome ‘JJ’ Ramatlhakwana was amongst the finest marksmen plying their trade in Africa.
By the end of 2011, the team was down at number 95 but there was no reason for alarm, as the Zebras prepared for their maiden dance at the AFCON finals.
But a disastrous outing at the finals, which included a 6-1 shellacking at the hands of Guinea, saw the Zebras bomb out of the top 100, reaching number 121 at the end of 2012.
It marked the start of a slide that has not been decisively arrested. Tshosane was sacked after a 4-1 loss to South Africa in 2013, as the team lost shape and bite.
Despite seeing the Zebras qualify for the first ever AFCON finals, David Fani lost the Botswana Football Association (BFA) elections to Tebogo Sebego. The new man immediately appointed Peter Butler as Zebras coach in 2013 as the repair works began.
The Zebras returned to the top 100, with Butler masterminding memorable results against giants, Mali and Burkina Faso in 2015. The self-belief was back as thousands thronged the Obed Itani Chilume Stadium with renewed zeal. The record attendance of 26,262 for a football match, was recorded under Butler.
The Zebras also reached the finals of the COSAFA Cup in 2016, but narrowly lost 3-2 to South Africa.
The late David Bright replaced Butler, and by 2017, the team plunged to number 150.
He lasted a couple of years where the average ranking was above 140 and there was not much to write home about. In August 2019, the BFA appointed Belgian, Adel Amrouche and he immediately faced a baptism of fire as the Zebras were knocked out of the World Cup qualifiers by Malawi, although he was relatively new and it was hardly his fault. In between Bright and Amrouche, Teenage Mpote had guided the team to its second COSAFA Cup final but fell to Zambia.
Under Amrouche, the team struggled for results, winning once in six AFCON qualifiers and finishing at the bottom of the table that included Algeria, Zambia and Zimbabwe. During 2020, COVID-19 wreaked havoc as there was no football for more than a year, but coaches are judged on results.
The Zebras are now number 150, with discussions on the team’s performance expected to take centre stage at Lekidi Centre. In Africa, the Zebras are now ranked 43 out of 53 countries, even below lightweights such as Lesotho.