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The battle to rescue Constituency football

It all started on one good afternoon in the last week of August when Kgosana Masaseng, a highly regarded football analyst and Players’ Union spokesperson, made a call to FIFA development officer, Ashford Mamelodi.

Masaseng wanted to meet with Mamelodi to discuss the future of Botswana football in the context of the controversy-ridden Constituency football tournaments. The two would later meet in a Portuguese restaurant at Gaborone’s Game City shopping mall.

As they dined, the hotly debated topic of Constituency tournament was discussed. More was to follow. Little did Masaseng and Mamelodi realise that by starting discussions around this issue, a solution to the most troubling football matter was in the offing.

Mamelodi left the meeting with an assignment to think about a solution that the Botswana Football Association (BFA) and Government could easily agree upon. A new date for the second round of discussions was later agreed on and secured. This time, the plot thickened. Masaseng was tasked with coming up with a list of key strategists to help fast-track the discussions to break the constituency tournaments stalemate.

Politicians from across the spectrum were at the time at each other’s throat especially after information spread that FIFA had given the BFA until September 22 to come up with convincing answers to the issue of Constituency tournaments. The BFA, according to those close to the game, had written FIFA in Zurich, complaining about the impact of Constituency tournaments on mainstream football in Botswana.

FIFA swiftly sent a two-man delegation to Botswana on a fact-finding mission to assess the impact of constituency tournaments, which were introduced in 2008 in an attempt by Government to address youth unemployment, among other thorny issues. It was called the constituency sport tournament programme as it coincided with the political constituency boundaries for its implementation and administration.

The FIFA delegation after meeting both Government officials led by the acting Minister of Youth, Sport and Culture, Vincent Seretse, and the Tebogo Sebego-led BFA, wasted no time in giving feedback to key stakeholders. In no time, the mission was completed and a report compiled for the world governing body.

It was not long before word was out that Botswana risked suspension from the world soccer governing body. In trying to address the problem, the BFA met with the Botswana National Sports Council (BNSC) to find a common ground on this hotly contested matter. Apparently, their proposal was shot down by Seretse, who is said to have maintained that his Government would not back down even in the face of a FIFA sanction.

Opposition politicians took to the freedom squares, pointing accusing fingers at the ruling party for bringing the country’s football into disrepute. However, the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) – through the then Minister of Youth, Sport and Culture, Shaw Kgathi – was steadfast in its response to its critics, accusing them of reporting the matter to FIFA before it could be fully dealt with locally. As tempers flared, President Ian Khama probably delivered a sucker punch to the BFA when he declared that if FIFA insisted on a suspension, his Government would withdraw resources and hand over the tournaments to the BFA for administration. It was at this stage that the battle lines were drawn. On the sidelines, the Masaseng-Mamelodi project was slowly taking shape. Soon a meeting was arranged with a Member of Parliament (MP) for the now Bonnington South, Botsalo Ntuane, at the Botswana Craft.

His role was to try his best and pass the message onto the country’s top leadership about the prospects of a compromise. Ntuane was convinced that a solution was within reach and that all it called for was a platform where the issue could be thrashed out in greater detail. Predictably he was to make it happen within the shortest time possible.

It was in his interest and that of his party to act on the matter as it had by then become a political hot potato. By late evening, Ntuane contacted President Khama’s senior private secretary, George Tlhalerwa, who promised to escalate the matter further, or at the least, try to secure a meeting for Mamelodi. The political side of the business was in top gear.

After three days, the President was still not available for a meeting as his schedule was jam-packed. Whilst in Jwaneng to provide lectures for Jwaneng Galaxy FC, the Masaseng-Mamelodi axis developed and secured another route that could get the country’s top office to at least spare a minute or two for a briefing.

 Jwaneng-Mabutsane parliamentary hopeful, Mephatho Reatile was the next target. He was seen as a close ‘chess icon’ that could reach the Office of the President (OP) much quicker in an effort to parry the political pressure from opponents. Indeed, the choice turned to be spot on.

On the eve of BDP’s fund-raising dinner featuring renowned South African business magnate Patrice Motsepeld at Boipuso Hall, Reatile met Masaseng and Mamelodi who were arriving from Jwaneng to make a follow-up to their previous call. Although Reatile was for a minute glued to the couch at the Cappuccinos, he was equally in a hurry to attend the fund-raising event. The constituency tournament solution would, in the remaining three weeks ahead of the elections make life much easier for the ruling party. His interest was now in the “three weeks”.

The meeting ended with yet another assignment for the BDP spin doctor. Whilst attending the dinner, Reatile could not afford to take his eyes off the ball. In between activities, he found his way to Vice President Ponatshego Kedikilwe’s ear and whispered the “good news”. That very night, a decision was made to secure a meeting for Monday and suddenly the gigs-saw puzzle pieces were falling into place.

Ntuane on the other side had also secured an appointment for Mamelodi to come for a brief presentation. Monday was turning into a D-day. Through the efforts of Reatile, the vice president finally met the former BFA strongman for a meeting at the OP at 1200hrs. Victory was imminent. 

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Sport

City turns to BFA tribunal over relegation

23rd November 2021
Premier league players

Botswana Football Association (BFA) arbitration tribunal is set to hear a case in which Molepolole City Stars is challenging the 2019-20 football season curtailment that led to their untimely relegation. The season was abruptly ended amid the ravaging COVID-19 scourge when the government decided to place the whole country under lockdown.

In particular, City Stars, under Somerset Gobuiwang, challenges the rationale and fairness of the association to end the league when there were several options to pursue. The club does not want to contest the authority of the national executive committee to stop the league but argues that the decision to relegate them based on the log standing was unfair, irrational and unreasonable.

Moreover, the decision was against the spirit of the game and not the most appropriate one under circumstances where they were still about 10 league games to play. As the papers were submitted, City Stars argues that the most appropriate step would have been to suspend the league and protect the league standing. “The league would then resume when it was safe to do so, as indeed it is happening now, with the log standings maintained as they were,” the court papers read.

The team, which was languishing at the bottom of the table when the decision was taken, also argues and gives an alternative that the league could have ended without relegation issues. City Stars argues, “This would be in recognition of the undeniable facts that the league was not complete and that the log standings at the time were not in any way an indicator of how they would have been had the league been allowed to run its course.”

Furthermore, Molepolole City Stars are livid that the association did not consider that the complainant had valid contracts with its staff and players and that such agreement could not be terminated abruptly. On the one hand, BFA said it was looking at three options before ending the league. Facts and scenarios informed each decision, and one was independent of the other, it was argued.

The first option, BFA says, was to stop the league where it was and crown the team that occupied the first place, which was Jwaneng Galaxy. Furthermore, three teams lying at the bottom of the table would be relegated, and teams on pole positions from Debswana First Division north and south will be promoted automatically.

By all accounts, the association felt it was a controversial option to undertake but also fairer for the sake of progress. The second available possibility was to stretch the season and consequently change the football calendar. “There has been a shelved proposal that recommends the change of our season from the usual August-May calendar to February – November because of health reasons,” BFA president MacLean Letshwiti said before making the decision.

The last possibility was to nullify all the leagues. This was — and continued to be — the last resort. Across all the global leagues, the domestic campaign had only 10 matches left, which could, in theory, be completed in the space of five weeks. In the end, BFA feels that a decision had to be made for the sake of progress. The dates of the hearing are yet to be made public.

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Sport

Is it time to take Piro serious?

23rd November 2021
GU

Pontsho Moloi’s character and football standing as a young coach have embodied simplicity and hard work for far too long. Moloi is a local bred coach who has so far threatened foreign gaffers with his coaching philosophy, a style that is exciting and irking football purists in equal measure.

As Moloi is famously known in football circles, Piro has coached a few different clubs in the homeland, but his stewardship of Gaborone United last season — going into the new one- remains his best memorable achievement ever. Before the 2019-20 season was stopped because of the COVID-19 outbreak, GU was one of the league’s favourites.

But as any self-respecting purveyor of sporting cliché knows, it is never a bad idea to keep quiet and let your football do the talking. The only hanging problem for Piro is that he has often wanted to let his talking do the talking — which is a shame since, by and large, his football, both as a player and coach, has spoken loudly enough.

Piro’s coaching resume is fascinating and worth the test for a coach whose career is barely two years old. He has presided over big guns, one staggeringly good debut top-flight campaign, one freewheeling title charge, and one dramatic league season. Yet throughout, he has continued to serve as a punch line, painted by a substantial cohort.

Now, three games into the current season, his Gaborone United side sit at the top of the pile, having won all their games and remarkably keeping a clean sheet. No team has scored more goals than Piro’s side. Is Botswana football finally ready to recognize Piro as an elite-level coach? In fact, why has it not done so already?

The answer is not straightforward, regardless of what some of his harsher detractors would want to believe, although it is true that he has often failed to do himself any favours when a microphone has been aimed his way. In today’s culture, it only takes one slip of the tongue — one tiny sound bite lacking in self-awareness — to make you look silly.

Piro’s model has worked across the board: promotion-chasing minnow, sleeping giant, trophy-hovering Goliath figure, and now an aspirational upper-middleweight.

In each instance, he has found a new gear, improved his team beyond expectation and created a side better than the sum of its parts, at least for a time. Young and veteran players excel under his watch. Attackers — especially hard-running and bloodthirsty centre-forwards, Thatayaone Kgamanyane — flourish like never before. And for once, he has needed big money to make significant progress. Yet even at United, the least tangibly successful of his last three jobs and one where things went downhill towards the end, he put together sensationally exciting teams.

Now at GU, pundits still ask whether he will last longer at the top or he will soon fall. His demonstrations this season speak volumes about winning a bigger and better trophy this season. Can he deliver, or time will tell? Part of the answer will come as the season wears on.

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Sport

GU, Rollers – early favorites

16th November 2021
Rollers & GU

Football giants Township Rollers and Gaborone United have emerged as early favourites to win the newly refined Botswana Football League (BFL), following a perfect start to the season.   

There is a sense of relief from different quarters that this new football season, still striving to secure a title sponsor, is set to be packed with more excitement and action than anticipated. Seasons’ never-ending transfer rumour mill, coupled with half-paced friendlies, have their place in football, but they were indeed only going to be a tasty little snack before the sumptuous banquet, which is a new season.

Each team has played three games. At the time of going to print, Gaborone United, driven by local gaffers Innocent Morapedi and Pontso Moloi, remains in pole position with 9 points, maintaining an unbeaten record. The club also holds another record as only to club yet to concede. Also, on pole position is Township Rollers, who remain of the favourites to clinch the title come season end.

Languishing at the bottom of the log is Extension Gunners. The Lobatse based outfit have already pressed panic buttons by sacking their coach. It is still early days, but it appears The Peleng Boys, as they are affectionately called, are suffering early relegation season syndrome. They have played three games and are still struggling to find a win, let alone finding the back of the net.

Big guns like Orapa United and Jwaneng Galaxy have tried to bolster their squads but have failed to stamp authority in their first three encounters. Galaxy look set to be a better team, but two registered wins and a loss may as well betray this standing belief. Orapa, on the other hand, has grouped experienced players in their camp. Die-hard followers hope that this may be a fruitful season, but a midweek loss against Police XI in their backyard leaves followers questioning the readiness of their technical team as the season gets hot.

Township Rollers are breathing heavily on Gaborone United backs. The two teams now becoming rivals are equal on points, but much of the scrutiny is on GU, whose defence might be critical to this year’s championship.  The need for news and views — not to mention wins in Lobatse and Francistown or wherever will once again become the all-consuming passion in many football lovers’ lives. Some had reason to be happier than most. That is why Sua Flamingoes and Masitaoka are ecstatic for their first 2021 victories.

A logical decree is that the Premier League’s usual suspects will have it all their way again. Talent galore and bottomless pockets of cash were enough to ensure yet more silverware ends up in already crammed trophy cabinets. The cream, as they say, always tends to rise to the top. Week 1 of this first half-season was the most interesting one. Eighteen goals were scored, and Thatayaone Kgamanyane of GU became the first player to score a Premier League goal this season.

Premier League Chief Executive Officer Solomon Ramochothwane believes this will be the most competitive season of recent seasons. “It is tight and competitive, and we might have a new champion at the end,” he opined. He also expressed happiness that numbers will grow at the stadiums as time goes on. But beyond the shadow of a doubt, the return of Premier League fourth round — as remarkable as the first three laps — will signal several months of nail-biting, edge-of-the-seat tension.

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