In Lesotho, people always tell the same old story, and it certainly is a sad one. It’s about a country that is crazy about football but which, so far, has been unable to celebrate its passion for the beautiful game at a major tournament.
Of the 22 FIFA World Cups and 32 CAF Africa Cup of Nations to date, Lesotho have never managed to be among the participants.
Even if they do not manage to break that barren spell in time for Qatar 2022, the Likuena (or Crocodiles) are still looking to turn things around at least from a continental point of view by 2022, and hopefully then begin a new chapter en route to the FIFA World Cup 2026.
Lesotho are taking a long-term approach and banking on youth, both on and off the pitch, with 40-year-old South African Thabo Senong having been named coach.
“I really don’t think that age is an issue for a coach,” Senong told FIFA.com. “I’ve seen a lot of young coaches who have had success around the world, including Rinus Michels, Franz Beckenbauer, Arrigo Sacchi, Roberto Martinez and Carlos Alberto Parreira.”
The man who began coaching at just 20 is also certain he will get his players to respect him, even though he is just a few years older than some of them: “I have always relied on my passion and my values as a person – that’s what’s important to me. I have the experience I need to help players and teams develop.”
Twenty is also the age of the players that Senong has had the most success with to date. As South Africa U-20 coach from 2015 to 2019, he won the COSAFA U-20 Challenge Cup in 2017 and led the Amajita to the FIFA U-20 World Cups of 2017 and 2019, which were won by England and Ukraine respectively.
“In terms of tactics, the teams from Europe and Asia were slightly ahead of the African ones,” he said. “They relied more on team tactics and cognitive skills to win matches, whereas the teams from Africa, South America and CONCACAF were mainly focused on individuals with certain athletic qualities and skill-sets.”
Taking that experience on board, Senong has now moved up to a full international set-up and is having to adapt his methods to an older, more mature squad.
“The transition from youth to senior international level isn’t an easy one,” said the Soweto native. “I have had to adapt and be flexible to get the best out of the players. I’ve had to adjust my style of coaching to allow players to make contributions of their own.
“Full internationals have experience and opinions on tactics. I listen more, take their ideas on board and see whether they can come up with options for the competition that we’re in, the opposition we’re facing, our strengths and our tactical basis. With senior internationals, you coach less and spend more time handling the various personalities and interactions to make sure that there is a good atmosphere in the dressing room.”
This does not mean, however, that Senong will be neglecting what he knows best and can get the maximum effect from.
“We’ll try to give young, talented players a chance,” he said, and indeed there was no-one older than their twenties in the group that he picked to play Ethiopia in the first round of African qualifiers for Qatar 2022. “We need to give them more international matches for them to develop, and hopefully they can get transfers to play in championships abroad. We make sure that there is a lot of pace in our play, with or without the ball, so it’s important to have youngsters who have the necessary energy and intensity.”
That formula almost worked against Ethiopia, with the team not losing either of their matches but going out on the away-goals rule (drawing 0-0 in Ethiopia and 1-1 at home). Lesotho will have further opportunities to see whether their new mindset can pay dividends when they face Nigeria, Benin and Sierra Leone in qualifying for the AFCON 2022. The team will be hoping to create a few surprises and maybe even make it through to the tournament in Cameroon in two years’ time.
“Being one of the outsiders puts us in a good frame of mind – it means that we have to be alert and well prepared,” said Senong. “We’re working hard to give the players the belief they need and to improve the chemistry between them as well as their fitness and the overall collective play.”
The aim is obviously to qualify for the continental tournament for what would be a historic achievement, and also to keep their supporters happy and give them something to dream about.
“They love football based on possession, with plenty of attacking and goals,” he said. “They hate direct football that’s lacking in artistry, creativity and imagination. Fans can sometimes be impatient, even aggressive and demanding. But one thing they love is a win at the end of the day.”
Hopefully Senong will be able to write a new chapter in the Lesotho story, and one with a happy ending this time around.