In two decades, Botswana’s senior women’s national football team went from being handed their biggest defeat – a thumping 14-0 loss to Banyana Banyana – to becoming one of southern Africa’s flagbearers in continental football.
The Mares will be heading to their maiden Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) in July as one of four debutant teams along with Burundi, Togo and Burkina Faso. The Morocco edition is the first to have 12 nations following the expansion of the tournament by the Confederation of African Football (CAF). Coach Gaoletlhoo Nkutlwisang’s charges will have their work cut out in the competition as they are pitted against two tournament favourites, South Africa and 11-time African champions Nigeria. Burundi completes Group C.
If it were still 20 years ago, Botswana would stand no chance in the group considering the rude awakening Banyana gave them when they entered international football for the first time. But a concerted effort to grow women’s football in the country has turned the Mares into a respectable side in southern Africa.
The turning point was the decision by the Botswana Football Association (BFA) to send the Under-20 side to the Cosafa Women’s Championship in 2019 while the senior women’s team went to Slovakia for a two-week-long training camp. It was a masterstroke. The senior team came back to eliminate Banyana Banyana in the qualifiers for the Olympics. Nkutlwisang’s side also defeated the higher-ranked Zambia in the semifinals in the 2020 championship.
Their elimination of Zimbabwe from the Afcon is a continuation of the positives that this team have seen in the past few years. As part of their preparation for the showpiece, the Mares performed strongly in two friendly matches against the Copper Queens, narrowly losing 1-0 and playing to a 1-1 draw.
BFA chief executive Mfolo Mfolo says the association is investing in growing the sport in the country and aims to get all 17 of Botswana’s regions to participate. “When we came into office in 2019, we found that women’s football was played particularly in the southern side of the country, in the city. What we decided was that we want women’s football to be played all over the country. Currently, we have seven regions out of the 17 [playing women’s football]. It’s not enough,” says Mfolo.
“But we’ve got about 66 teams that are playing women’s football in a structured league in those regions. I think the turning point was when we took a deliberate decision as the association that we see women’s football as a low-hanging fruit, so in each and every competition that is offered either by Cosafa [Council of Southern Africa Football Associations], CAF and [world governing body] Fifa, we will participate. From Under-15, Under-17, Under-20 and ultimately to the senior women’s championships, we’ll participate. And we have been doing that consistently from 2017.
“The good thing about this is we work closely with the schools and there’s a school in the central district that is a form of school of excellence for the girls. We get most of the good players there, but we know it’s not enough. We want to make sure that we have these schools of excellence around the country,” he adds.
Mfolo credits Fifa’s initiative in 2018 to help the BFA with a strategy for women’s football for the country’s upward trajectory in the sport.
“It has been working quite well because we have managed to bring in a sponsor, the Diamond Trading Company Botswana, to support women’s football, especially at grassroots, and also to sponsor the leagues that women’s football is playing in. That is what we have been doing and I think that has been a motivation or plus on its own because now there’s direction,” explains Mfolo.
Although more Batswana are playing semi-competitive football, the country is still a long way from launching a professional league. Such leagues in European countries and the United States have produced competitive players who do well for their national teams. Mfolo says Botswana will eventually get there, but the focus right now is to increase participation and, most importantly, to get corporate companies as sponsors of the game.
“We need to be doing even more, but sometimes we are handicapped by resources. If we can get more sponsors on board, that would do well for women’s football,” says Mfolo.
Botswana senior women’s goalkeeper, Sedilame Boseja, feels the Afcon is a dream come true for a country whose team are finally finding their feet after being seen as the whipping girls in the Cosafa region in years gone by. But she understands that a lot of work needs to be done before they become one of the sides that are feared on the continent.
“We are very, very happy and honoured to be part of the teams that are in the Afcon,” says Boseja, who is also Mamelodi Sundowns Ladies’ goalkeeper. “I mean this is our first, first time that we managed to make Batswana proud. So it really feels good. It shows that football here in Botswana has been really growing in the past two years and we have managed to beat teams like Banyana and Zambia.
“One thing that our coach did was introducing us to the senior team when we were very young. If we look at our team right now, most of them were [born in] 1996 or 1997 and we’ve been playing for the national team for like four to five years. So it shows that when you play with a young squad, in the future you will get results.”
Boseja is hopeful that the Mares will be a surprise package in Morocco. “It’s a very big level and it means more opportunities for our players to play overseas. Qualifying for the World Cup would really mean a lot to us.
“Most people call us the underdogs, but the one thing about underdogs is you never know what to expect of them. What I’m hoping is not to undermine or overrate any team. When we get there, we have to just play our normal football and the aim is to win.”