MASERU — To some Lioli is much more than a football club.
It’s viewed as an extension of Chief Masupha Moshoeshoe’s life — his poems of valour expressed in the splendour of Lioli’s daring football and his spirit epitomised by the chosen few who have donned the maroon strip on match days.
However — and sadly — Lioli in recent times had been infamous for their fans’ violent tendencies rather than any victories on the field of play.
Since Lioli’s first league championship triumph in 1985, 24 barren years followed.
Save for an Imperial Top Eight crown won in 2007, the Teyateyaneng side had nothing to show for their vociferous support since Potlako Ace inspired “Tse Nala” to the pinnacle of Lesotho football in the mid-80s.
That was therefore why — needing to win in Hlotse against Joy to capture the Holy Grail — Lioli on Saturday initiated the largest mass trek of Basotho since King Moshoeshoe marched his people to Thaba-Bosiu.
Nevertheless, on a wintry afternoon, Lioli never reached their scorching best.
It was therefore not a surprise when Joy, playing like possessed men, took the lead barely 10 minutes into the game.
The game’s location — deep in the Leribe district — might have been unnatural too.
But this was Lioli’s time — and Bushy Moletsane and Malebanye Ramoabi wrote their names in Lioli folklore with goals that gave “Tse Nala” a 2-1 win.
“I’m very happy for the team,” Lioli coach Mosholi Mokhothu said after the game.“This is a big achievement.”
“I feel very proud. All I can say is that I am proud,” Lioli captain Thabo Masualle told the Lesotho Times on Monday.
The team’s top scorer, Lehlohonolo Mpopo, called the achievement “overwhelming”.
Just two months ago all this looked impossible.
Lioli never planned to be champions.
Lioli didn’t even have either of their title-winning coaches, Mokhothu and Halemakale Mahlaha, in charge at the beginning of the season.
The man at the helm was Lebohang Thutanyane.
But a successful start to the season changed the game-plan.
By the time Lioli beat their great north rivals Linare 3-0 in December they were top of the league, seven wins from nine games making them champions at the end of year break.
“Our aim was to finish in the top four, but we began to see that the trophy had no owner and that no one could match our team,” club president Lehlohonolo Thutanyane said.
Still, championships are never won in December and there were many who doubted Lioli would march all the way to the Promised Land.
Lioli had been in the same position on many other occasions before, only to fail when it really mattered.
Those doubts seemed warranted when in April Lioli suffered a mid-season crisis.
Six points were dropped in two weeks, draws against LMPS, Rovers and Linare relegating Lioli to third-place.
In the meantime LDF were making winning look like cutting butter with a hot knife.
Winning 13 out of 16 matches since the turn of the year, the army side had forged a seven-point lead at the top of the Premier League.
“The pressure was to get into the top four and not to win the league,” said Masualle.
“We were feeling pressure because there was a possibility that we might have dropped out of the top four.”
Lioli’s poor run saw Mahlaha come on board as technical director.
The turning point in the race — even though it didn’t seem so at the time —came when LDF played twice on the last weekend of April, beating Rovers 2-1 and then drawing 0-0 against Matlama the following day.
The results were significant because they gave Lioli a mathematical chance of winning the league.
If Lioli won all their remaining games they would be champions.
Impossible as it may have seemed, that is exactly what Lioli did — including a 3-0 thumping of LDF.
“That was a very important game. We had to win and we played very well,” said Mpopo, who scored 10 goals in the season.
Lioli played seven games in May and won all of them.
“Fatigue was something that was there but we were only thinking about the league (title),” said Masualle.
Lioli found form when it mattered most, winning their last seven games.
It’s that form which catapulted Lioli to the top of the league to be crowned the champions of Lesotho.