If it were a musical performance, the stadium would have reverberated with ‘encore, encore’ as the Mares dished a near-flawless football lesson. The blue, black, and white nation, watching the girls in far-flung Morocco, nodded with approval at the end of a thoroughly satisfying display, reports Staff Writer MQONDISI DUBE
If there were jitters ahead of the Mares’ debut performance at the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations, the fears were emphatically banished as Burundi was put to the sword in a 4-2 drubbing on Monday night.
It was another night where the nation had congregated to rally behind one of their own and it turned out to be a special night.
Such moments are coming thick and fast for Botswana sport.
Who will forget the shining moment in N’djamena in 2011 when the Zebras qualified for their first ever Africa Cup of Nations finals, Amantle Montsho’s 400m run in Daegu which confirmed her as the world champion, the night in London when Nijel Amos participated in the world’s fastest 800m race, which culminated in Botswana registering its first ever Olympic Games medal. There are countless other days when Botswana has stood out in the international arena. Isaac Makwala's solo run in 2017 launched him into the global spotlight while Letsile Tebogo has emerged as the next big star on the track.
Last night, it was over to the Mares as the curtain was lifted on their WAFCON appearance. The girls did not disappoint and produced a performance to remember, with fans eating out of the palms of their hands.
After a cagey start, the Mares began to take control of the tie, with mainly the movement of forwards, Nondi Mahlasela and woman-of-the-match, Refilwe Tholakele providing the much-needed vim and vigour.
There was mobility in midfield, but Burundi, who are the Mares’ fellow debutants at the tournament, started to wrestle the initiative back midway through the first half. The Swallows had their dominant spells until a match-changing charge from Keitumetse Dithebe in the 44th minute. The left-footed Dithebe initiated the move from the belly of the pitch, subtracting several Burundi players before threading the ball to Mahlasela. The attacker obliged with a return pass, rolling the ball onto the path of Dithebe who lifted a fierce left-footer, which flew into the top of the net. Burundi’s resistance had been broken, but the match was still very much a contest heading into the dressing rooms at half-time.
However, the complexion of the tie turned within two minutes of restart as Botswana’s stripes began to shine brighter.
In fact, the start of the second half marked the beginning of the Tholakele show. In the build-up to the goal, she raced clear down the left flank, where Burundi had granted her unlimited freedom and cut the ball back for Lesego Radiakanyo who grabbed the Mares' second.
It was flowing football, but Burundi again started to disrupt the Mares’ smooth flow. In the 52nd minute, after good work down the left flank, Burundi profited when goalkeeper, Sedilame Boseja spilt the ball onto the path of the dangerous Sandrine Niyonkuru who rolled home to half the deficit.
The Mares and Tholakale then took full control of the tie as the marauding forward made it 3-1 in the 55th minute with the best goal of the night. Full of energy, Tholakele again cut inside from the left and let rip with her right foot from outside the box to beat a diving Burundi keeper.
Five minutes later, it was 4-1 as Tholakele grabbed her second goal of the match, with Mahlasela’s football intelligence once again on display. Mahlasela rolled an exquisite ball onto the path of Tholakele who fired home with the certainty and precision of a seasoned goal-poacher to effectively kill off the contest.
The Mares could have added to the score line, with some slick moves and Tholakale the undoubted conductor of the orchestra.
The thoroughly entertaining encounter saw a late brilliant goal from Niyonkuru who thumped a volley past Boseja to give her side the second goal.
With the win, the Mares went top of the log and will be buoyed as they head to their encounter against Nigeria on Thursday night. A win or draw will move birthday ‘girl’ Gaeletlhoo ‘Ronaldo’ Nkutlwisang’s side closer to a quarterfinal berth.