I’m writing this the morning of 1 February. It may not seem like such an ominous day for most people, but for Botswana today is the day we redeem our pride. Every Motswana, football fan or not, is waiting. Tonight our national team will play against Mali in what will in all likelihood be their last match in the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) and, come 8pm, quiet will descend on the country as we wait to see if we remain the laughing stock of the continent, or walk away with our heads high.
The Botswana Zebras have spent years being the whipping boys of African football. Losing seemed to be all we knew. But then something shifted. A new local coach, Stan Tshoshane, took over the reins after foreign coaches failed to transform a team sourced from a small national population (1.8 million), full of primarily small players compared to their northern counterparts. Stan was a former soldier and football player himself. He grumbled about how the Botswana Football Association (BFA) only hired him because they ran out of funds for the foreign coaches they preferred, but he took the post anyway and got to work.
And slowly the Zebras started winning. They travelled to Tunisia in an African Cup qualifier and, against all odds, the Zebras came out on top 1-0. This was followed by two draws with Malawi, a win against Togo and another win against Tunisia in Gaborone. The Zebras, the underdogs of the continent, were through to AFCON 2012!
At AFCON, they stood out. A team with a local coach is rare. A local textile company, All Kasi, designed and produced the Zebras’ kit for AFCON. No Puma, Nike or Adidas for our boys. And, unlike most of the teams, every player on the squad held a single passport – Botswana. It was a homegrown team, with a home-grown coach, wearing a home-grown kit, and the entire nation accompanied them, if in spirit only.
The first game against Ghana looked impossible. Ghana: the giants of the continent. But the Zebras stood up and Ghana had a hard-fought victory, 1-0. President Ian Khama was proud. We held our breath and at the back of our minds we let hope bloom – maybe we could do this.
The next game, Saturday, and the entire country buzzed. Cars were decorated with blue, black and white flags. I dropped blue food colouring into our celebratory wine. And when the match started, the streets emptied and the country was nearly silent.
We were happy Stan was taking a new offensive approach and our Dipsy Seolwane and Pontsho ‘Harry Potter’ Moloi were starting. But then all the wheels fell off. Depression descended as Guinea pummelled in goal after goal and when the whistle blew the scoreline read 6-1, matching the worst defeat in AFCON history.
On the radio, on Facebook, in pubs, in the mall – people at first were stunned. What happened? people speculated. Stan had lost the plan. But then, as people around the continent started ganging up on our boys, the country rallied. As South Africans started calling a half-dozen eggs ‘a Zebra’, we pulled together.
Are the Zebras not heroes? They showed us that no-one is without a chance; no-one is exempt from success
Were the Zebras really out? we asked. They still had the game against Mali, and if we managed to win with seven goals we could still go through, we said. The Zebras had never scored seven goals in a match – ever – but still the nation rallied. Still we had hope.
So I write this the morning of the Mali game, our last in the group stages. I’ve returned from my morning walk with the dogs and passed a woman driving a donkey cart wearing her Zebras shirt. I think no matter what happens tonight, on the day the Zebras come back to Botswana, I imagine she’ll be wearing her shirt again. For what is a hero, really? Is a hero the one who wins everything? The one always at the top? Is that even what heroes are about?
No, a hero is an inspiration, an aspiration of what each of us could be. Are the Zebras not heroes? They showed us that no-one is without a chance; no-one is exempt from success. Whatever happens tonight, I know for sure, our Zebras are heroes.