FRANCEVILLE, Gabon (AP) — Sixteen players in the Botswana squad at the African Cup of Nations are only semiprofessional, while striker Jerome Ramatlhakwane doesn’t even have a club at the moment.
Another two members enjoying Botswana’s first trip to a major tournament play second-tier football in South Africa, and captain Dipsy Selolwane is the only one who’s ever played outside Africa.
And yet Botswana and not highest-ranked Ivory Coast or Ghana was Africa’s team of the year for 2011. And without a goal-line clearance from Ghana’s John Boye and a desperate foul by his fellow French league professional John Mensah, Botswana’s amateurs could have had a draw against Africa’s four-time champion in the continent’s top tournament this week.
“This is definitely the year of the underdog,” Selolwane said.
Unexpected wins from Zambia and Equatorial Guinea at the African Cup have rammed that home.
Even so, the gap between Botswana’s amateurs — some of whom play for army or police teams — and their Group D rivals like Ghana’s English Premier League striker Asamoah Gyan, Mali’s Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita and Guinea and German Bundesliga pair Mamadou Bah and Ibrahima Traore is surely too great. Surely.
“It’s a learning curve for our team at this tournament, it’s our first time, but we aren’t that far behind the big teams,” Selolwane said. “On the pitch we’re not far from those big guys. They (Ghana) have guys who play in the top leagues in the world but they didn’t beat us 5 or 6-0.”
It was 1-0, and could so easily have been 1-1 as 10-man Ghana clung on at the end in Franceville.
Botswana’s opposition at the African Cup all have players playing in foreign lands and professional leagues. Some of them, like Keita, for the world’s best teams.
Botswana has just a handful of players with fully professional contracts, including Selolwane, who has played Major League Soccer in the U.S. The rest, like defender Mompati Thuma of the Botswana Defence Force team — who kept Gyan scoreless on Tuesday — are still hoping for their big break and are “basically amateurs,” Selolwane said.
“What they earn is nothing to write home about, so this is their chance to maybe play in South Africa or even Europe.
“The six professionals bring experience and leadership but the team being mainly playing in Botswana is our good luck charm. It helps bring the team together. The pros are just one of the guys.”
Even after the narrow loss to title contender Ghana at Stade de Franceville, Botswana won’t accept just qualifying for the tournament is enough for such a humble group. They have greater ambitions.
“We can’t work so hard through qualifying and in the tournament not to think about the quarterfinals,” Selolwane said. “But we’re going to enjoy the moment as well.”
Selolwane said the group was enjoying every moment and had “no problem” adjusting to the tournament. Even the security checks, so often an inconvenience for football’s biggest stars, were good.
“We feel well looked after everywhere we go,” he said.
Looking after Botswana’s preparations for the Cup of Nations is another figure who relies on skills outside of football to survive.
Coach Stanley Tshosane, Botswana’s inspiration, is a former army officer turned football tactician — and expects discipline and dedication from his group.
“Well, you know he has got a military background so that should tell you something about what he’s like,” Selolwane said, laughing. “But he’s cool and he can joke around as well. The crucial things is that he brings the guys together.”
Next up for Botswana is Guinea, which Selolwane said beat his team heavily the last time they met in a two-legged qualifying tie.
But this is the year of the underdog. And Botswana may just be the biggest underdog of them all.
“Guinea hammered us home and away the last time we played them in qualifiers a few years back so we have to be smart about the game,” he said. “But there’s always a chance.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press