Cup offers new hope

Con­ti­nen­tal tour­na­ment brings im­proved per­for­mances

World Soccer - - Sporting Gijon Valencia Villarreal -

n this sum­mer’s COSAFA Cup – an an­nual tour­na­ment for na­tional teams from south­ern Africa – Le­sotho showed tan­ta­lis­ing signs of im­prove­ment af­ter a dis­mal re­cent run. They won all three group games, only to lose on penal­ties in the quar­ter-fi­nals to neigh­bours South Africa, af­ter a poor African Na­tions Cup qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign and elim­i­na­tion from the 2018 World Cup qual­i­fiers in the first round.

Although Le­sotho have never fea­tured in a ma­jor tour­na­ment, sev­eral of the side from the 1990s did play pro­fes­sion­ally in South Africa, but th­ese days very few man­age to ply their trade abroad.

One of those who does is Sunny Jane, who plays for Rich­mond Kick­ers in the USA third-tier and scored for Le­sotho in a 2-1 Na­tions Cup qual­i­fy­ing win over Sey­chelles in March. How­ever, club com­mit­ments saw the 25-year-old striker miss the COSAFA Cup.

Jane was one of four play­ers taken to play col­lege football in the US by Louisville City as­sis­tant coach Tha­bane Sutu, who was a mem­ber of the Le­sotho side that beat Cameroon 2-0 in qual­i­fy­ing for the 1996 Na­tions Cup be­fore a row over wages saw key play­ers side-lined and the team pull out of the tour­na­ment.

“The same prob­lem per­sists,” ex­plains Sutu. “Some teams we used to beat hand­ily when I was play­ing have caught up with us or even sur­passed us. Botswana, Swazi­land, Namibia, An­gola, are def­i­nitely ahead of us. We used to beat th­ese na­tions very eas­ily in the 1990s.

“The big­gest prob­lem is we don’t re­ally have any cor­po­rate spon­sor­ships or in­volve­ment, so our play­ers are still part-timers.

“Our league stan­dards have plum­meted. l don’t think our level of coach­ing is on par with the rest of the con­ti­nent. We’ve got a long, long way to go.”

But Les­lie Notsi, who coached Le­sotho from 2011 to 2013, is slightly more op­ti­mistic, ar­gu­ing: “It is pos­si­ble for Le­sotho to qual­ify for an African Cup of Na­tions, but a lot of things has to hap­pen.

“We need most of our play­ers play­ing out­side Le­sotho so they can bring ex­pe­ri­ence, con­sis­tency and con­fi­dence to the team.

“The [do­mes­tic] Premier League has to turn pro­fes­sional, or at least semi-pro­fes­sional, and the league has to have more cup games in all di­vi­sions to give the play­ers more game time to im­prove the stan­dard of the game.”

Af­ter a spell in South Africa, Notsi is back in Le­sotho work­ing for Kick­4Life (K4L), which is a char­ity that also fields a Premier League team.

The league has 14 teams, with Li­oli – whose pres­i­dent, Le­bo­hang Thotanyana, is also min­is­ter for min­ing – are tra­di­tion­ally the strong­est, and only clubs con­nected to the state – army, po­lice and cor­rec­tional ser­vices – have full-time play­ers, who are es­sen­tially civil ser­vants.

Founded in 2005 by broth­ers Steve and Pete Fleming, K4L sub­se­quently bought out sec­ond-tier side Lit­tle Flower and cur­rently share the na­tional sta­dium with Li­oli. K4L com­bines so­cial work, no­tably aids aware­ness, with football and is work­ing with the Le­sotho Football As­so­ci­a­tion on a GOAL project ap­pli­ca­tion to FIFA to build a sta­dium, with two ar­ti­fi­cial pitches and pur­pose-built HIV test­ing lab­o­ra­to­ries by 2017.

“Peo­ple will be able to come and watch matches and get tested,” ex­plains K4L FC di­rec­tor Chris Bul­lock.

As for the play­ing side of things, Bul­lock read­ily ad­mits: “The prob­lem is that there are play­ers of tal­ent but they have never had the right level of coach­ing and were miss­ing the ba­sic tech­niques.

“Our idea is that a good per­cent­age will get schol­ar­ships in the United States, or play at a high level in South Africa or Le­sotho and get pro­fes­sional con­tracts.”

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