The Zebras’ first and only dance at the Africa Cup of Nations finals came in 2012. One of the finest dancers of that generation was Jerome ‘JJ’ Ramatlhakwana who decided to leave the stage last season. Ramatlhakwana, also known as the ‘Big Animal’ looks back at a sparkling two-decade journey in this interview with Staff Writer, MQONDISI DUBE
Stanley Tshosane was the local man on the touchline to guide the Zebras to the historic moment and ‘JJ’ was a vital piece of the puzzle. Despite a lack of game time at his South African side, Engen Santos, Tshosane persisted with Ramatlhakwana who led the Zebras line-up with aplomb.
“Santos was a good experience even though I wasn’t a regular. Sometimes if things are not working there is no need to blame anyone. Yes, I was frustrated (at the lack of game time) but it motivated me to work even harder when I got to the national team.
Mr Tshosane had faith in me, that was a big plus for me,” Ramatlhakwana said.
Ramatlhakwana was in inspired form for the Zebras, plundering five goals in arguably his best career spell, to lead the Zebras to the first AFCON finals. The display earned him a nomination for the CAF African Player of the Year award in 2011. The Zebras were also among nominees for the CAF Team of the Year as Botswana football came of age.
Ramatlhakwana played as a typical number nine, which at times required the patience of a predator. At times he effectively survived on crumbs, picking up the pieces and making the most out of the situation. His predatory instincts ensured the ‘Big Animal’ was always at the right place, at the right time. One game which typified his goal poaching qualities was against African giants, Tunisia at the University of Botswana Stadium in 2010.
After the most trumpeted member of the squad, Diphetogo ‘Dipsy’ Selolwane had worked his magic in the midfield, he fired into a forest of Tunisia defenders and the ball rebounded kindly for Ramatlhakwana who fired home. The goal torched wild celebrations as the Zebras could literally touch their finest moment. The victory saw the Zebras take a quantum leap towards qualification, leaving Tshosane’s boys needing only a draw away to Chad in March 2011.
Away in the Chadian capital, N’djamena, before a carnival atmosphere, which had seen Zebras fans travel in numbers, Ramatlhakwana’s right boot drove the crucial goal home to send Botswana through to the first ever AFCON finals. “It’s a bit difficult to pick the best or important goal as I have scored memorable goals. But the one in Chad was more than a goal because we achieved a magnificent feat. The whole of Africa viewed us from a different angle after we qualified,” he reminisced.
After more than two decades in the game, Ramatlhakwana hung up his boots last season before COVID-19 halted football activities. He said it was time to move on and would not be involved in football in the interim.
“Yes, I have hanged up my boots. I have spent a lot of time in football... more than two decades. For now, I would like to completely focus on my life. Whatever I do, it will be away from football. It’s my (personal) time now...maybe in future I will be back to football but not in coaching,” the 36-year-old said. He quits the game as the Zebras’ leading goal scorer with 24 goals. He said his love for football started at an early age as he came from a family of footballers.
“All my uncles used to play soccer and I used to go with them to matches, that’s how I developed interest.” His first club was Matebejana, a BDF XI development side, where he was signed after a friend saw him playing street soccer and was convinced of his talents.
The burly striker started off as a winger but was later converted to the central position by his coach at Matebejana, Johnson Tshupo.
His big break came when then First Division side, Uniao Flamengo Santos signed him from Matebejana.
“From there everything picked up. My biggest move was playing outside the country, which is what every local player aspires to,” he said after he secured moves to Engen Santos and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Don Bosco. But before his talents were shipped abroad, fans were treated to the best of Ramatlhakwana when he tormented local defenders playing for an irrepressible Mochudi Centre Chiefs side before his departure in 2008.
“I played under different sides, which were all successful, but the 2008 Mochudi Centre Chiefs side was a monster team. Mr Ernest Molome bought all the right players who fitted in immediately. There was no way we could not dominate the league. The team had about six Zebras players and about seven Under-23 members. Nobody in the league could match that kind of quality. We won matches even before they started, we were intimidating,” he said. The dominant Chiefs side won the league unbeaten in 2008 and had the likes of Noah Maposa, the Moloi brothers, Dirang and Pontsho, Phenyo Mongala as well as Sekhana Koko.
After his exploits with Chiefs, Ramatlhakwana moved to South Africa in 2008 for a stop-start career. The team was coached by the late David Bright and also had Selolwane and Mogogi Gabonamong in their books.
Among the toughest defenders he has faced, Ramatlhakwana lists Guinea’s Bobo Balde, Ghana’s John Mensah and Yussif Goma.
“The list is endless. When you gain reputation everybody becomes tough on you, but you also gain their respect,” he said.
Upon return from South Africa, Ramatlhakwana re-joined Chiefs, before a surprise move to the DRC, where together with Dirang Moloi and Mongala, he joined Don Bosco. He justified the move although it was cut short as life later became a nightmare in the war-torn country.
“The move was good financially but life became a nightmare. However, I don’t regret the move. Nobody forced me, it was my choice,” he said. After the ‘Class of 2012’ the Zebras fortunes have plummeted, bar a brief period in 2015 when the team slew giants, Burkina Faso and Mali. The team is ranked 148th in the world, a far cry from the 53rd attained during Tshosane’s charge in 2010.
Ramatlhakwana said difficult decisions have to be made to push the Zebras back to the top. “There are no shortcuts in football. Development is the key. Let’s give ourselves 10 years to develop (again), it might not be enough. We should also get input from those old men who did it before. We will go somewhere if we do that,” he said. Ramathakwana said there is need for an identity for the national teams.
“For any team to succeed they must have an identity. Banks Panene and Major David Bright Under-23 teams were using the same system as Jelusic Veselin, Colwyn Rowe and Stan Tshosane’s senior teams. So it became very easy when you get promoted to the senior team,” he said.
Ramatlhakwana said local players need to go abroad to ensure the Zebras have foreign-based players for experience and guidance. He also noted, there is need for proper support from all the structures, including the association and the government in an all-hands-on-deck approach to rekindle the glory days.
Full names: Jerome Ontiretse Ramatlhakwana
Date of birth: May 29, 1985
Place of birth: Lobatse
Home Village: Malolwane
Previous teams: Matebejana, Uniao Flamingo Santos, Mochudi Centre Chiefs, Township Rollers, Orapa United, Gaborone United, Engen Santos (South Africa), Vasco Da Gama (South Africa), Don Bosco (DRC)
International goals: 24 goals