The story of Botswana’s football side, Township Rollers will not go unnoticed and will forever remained etched in the country’s archives for many years to come. Affectionately known as ‘Popa’ in the local football circles, Rollers have earned themselves a coveted spot in the African football spectacle as they join other big boys from Africa in the Confederations of Africa football (CAF) Champions’ league group stages.
Under the great tutelage of their Serbian coach Kavazovic Nikola, Rollers become the first football team from the landlocked republic of Botswana to advance to CAF league group stages. Rollers will join the likes of Mbabane Swallows (Swaziland) , Mamelodi Sundowns (South Africa), ZESCO United (Zambia), 1° de Agosto (Angola), TP Mazembe (DR Congo), Kampala City (Uganda), AS Togo-Port (Togo), Horoya A.C. (Guinea), Al Ahly (Egypt), MC Alger (Algeria), ES Sétif (Algeria), Étoile du Sahel (Tunisia) , Espérance de Tunis (Tunisia), Wydad Casablanca (Morocco) and Difaâ El Jadidi (Morocco).
The draw of the group stages will be conducted in Cairo, Egypt tomorrow (Wednesday). #BotswanaUnplugged looks at how the Gaborone West-based club has over the years rose to prominence. Since 2006, Botswana football has truly come of age by producing export talents and Rollers has been in the lead. Not only is Rollers a revered team both in terms of aptitude and being professionally run but the team has indeed captured every quality player in the league.
Those who played abroad and later returned home also made Rollers their home. These include Mogogi Gabonamong, Kabelo Dambe and Joel Mogorosi to name but a few. Tasting and plying their trade internationally gave these champs experience which ultimately rubbed off onto younger players at the club thus raising the club’s profile several notches up.
Subsequently, in 2012 the national team, Zebras made their maiden AFCON appearance when they put a fierce battle against the continent’s favorites, Ghana where they lost one-nil before succumbing to pressure at hands of Mali and Guinea respectively. However immediately after the 2012 historic showcase, things fell apart for Botswana football despite a few businessmen coming in possibly to uplift the administration side of local football.
Nonetheless, Rollers earned its stripes when tycoon, Jagdish Shah expressed interest in turning the club’s fortunes around and making the team a formidable business entity. The Rollers’ fairytale story reverberates just like any of the African football giants that one can think of thanks to the team’s dedication, passion and financial sustenance.
It appears Shah harboured ambitions equal and deservingly compared to South Africa’s mining magnate, Patrice Motsepe who owns the Absa premiership side of Mamelodi Sundowns – ambitions to conquer Africa through soccer. However, before conquering Africa, the two sides have won everything domestically and with sheer quality too. Rollers’ recent qualification to the last 16 of CAF is indeed worth celebrating and truly a moment in history.
The country’s football governing body, Botswana Football Association (BFA) got affiliated to CAF in 1976. Since then, local supporters especially Popa diehards have waited for the beckoning history for 42 years of trying with no luck until today. They have travelled to Angola, Madagascar, Zambia, and South Africa among many countries but always got beaten. Today, having reached the continental showpiece’s group stages, Rollers have not only become the country’s pride but players also stand to benefit handsomely from taking part.
For instance, should Rollers lose at the group stages, they are going to pocket a whopping P6 million, money they would only make here at home after being crowned beMobile premiership champs four times. Rollers under Shah’s guidance also hired experienced backroom staff which include Public Relations (PR) services of Bafana Phemeretlhe Pheto – a calm and collected football mouthpiece with a firm Christian background.
Even though soccer pundits had thought he would not last a season with the team citing the alleged rampant African muti in football, Pheto has remained steadfast, continues to manage and contain the somewhat hard-to-please Rollers fans. To keep their ship atop floating waters, Rollers also roped in the likes of Sydney Magagane who is the former chairman of the relegated Ramotswa’s Letlapeng FC and also former executive of South First Division.
International coaches such as Mark Harrison were also instrumental at the Rollers camp much to the grievance of soccer pundits who cried foul that local coaches were unnoticed. Despite these displeasures, Shah and company remained committed to building a competitive club in Rollers. When Harrison left in January 2017, Teenage Mpote became the interim coach albeit only shortly until the arrival of Serbian gaffer, Kavazovic Nikola.
Although very little was known about him, Nikola went over 17 games unbeaten, won the Mascom Top 8 and qualified for the group stages of the CAF champions league in his first season in Botswana – something which was never achieved before. The country has thus pinned its hopes on Popa to raise the bar high and as a result lift Botswana football rankings high in Africa. In southern Africa, Rollers is counted among the five clubs that have reached the coveted CAF stage.
Overwhelmed by a gallant mood after his troops’ goalless draw against Yanga of Tanzania over the weekend, Rollers coach said he was proud of his charges and sent a stern warning to any team they will be drawn to face that they are coming to perform in the Africa showpiece and outshine their opponents.
“We totally deserve it, all the four games we played against Al-Merreikh and Young Africans we dominated, not once were we ever under threat of elimination. It is not a surprise anymore, everything is down to the work we have put together since last July, me and my players have been speaking and working everyday. As I said in the preview, our intention was to dominate all four moments of the game, the ball possession we dominated, our defensive organization was excellent and the two transitions were also good,” Kavazovic said recently.