It was D-Day on Monday last week as the Confederation of African Football (Caf) conducted the much-anticipated 2015 Champions League draw.
Lesotho champions Bantu were among the dozens of clubs anxiously awaiting the draw of African football’s elite and had their prayers answered after being paired against Association Sportive (AS) Mangasport of Gabon—hardly a superpower of the continental game.
I, for one, believe this was a very fair draw for Bantu, who had made it clear they would rather play anyone else but not teams from South Africa, the DR Congo and Zambia in the preliminary round of the showpiece.
Bantu fly to Gabon on the second weekend of February to make their debut in this continental tournament, and then host Mangasport a fortnight later at Setsoto.
Personally, I am convinced Motlatsi Shale’s charges have what it takes to make it into the next round of the competition at Mangasport’s expense, because this is the very same team that won its maiden Premier League title with only one loss in 26 matches last season. However, there will only be one name missing from Bantu come the 2015 Champions League, and that would be lethal striker Tsebang Lebata, whose promising career has since been wrecked by a debilitating injury.
Lebata was a very instrumental player for Bantu last season, leading the attack with such aplomb and landing the Vodacom Premier League top scorer award, or Golden Boot as the football fraternity likes to call it, with 14 goals. But a quirk of fate has ruled this unassuming hitman out of the game for at least one season, which means he could be out the entire 2014/15 campaign and probably even longer.
Many Bantu fans are complaining that their team is no longer as potent as it used to be last season, but I beg to differ because this is a classy side that still carefully works its way past the opposition before planting the ball home or restarting this game of wits, as football has always been.
Bantu might be trailing current Vodacom Premier League log-leaders Lioli by seven points going into the festive season or halfway break, but remain a dangerous outfit with all the telltale signs of a well-drilled side.
The team, I suppose, only appears to be having a torrid time of it at this stage of the Premiership campaign, simply because their opponents have since become more organised and ready to face them.
It is true Bantu might not have the best squad on paper, but if there is one thing I have learnt about football, is names count for little, with determination, unity of purpose and that love of the badge, almost always determining the outcome of a match.
On so many occasions, I have watched Bantu play and realised they possess all this and more—which is to make Lesotho proud by becoming the first local team to clear the first hurdle in the race to land Africa’s most lucrative club football competition, whose winner is guaranteed a cool M10 million.
Local football has remained at development stage due to a number of factors, among them lack of funds that has discouraged players from giving that extra-push when they face their highly paid counterparts from countries such as South Africa. That is why it would not be fair to expect Bantu to even reach the money-spinning group stage of the Champions League because this is a competition that draws the best teams from Africa, most of which are heavily funded by both the corporate world and their governments.
Yet I still have faith in Bantu creating their own piece of history and making it past Mangasport and storming the first round of the tournament.
If anyone had any doubts of Bantu’s capacity, then pause for a moment to analyse their squad, man for man. And you might not even want to go all the way in evaluating the entire squad, as the ball might start and stop at their Prodigal Son, Litšepe Marabe. Marabe has been at the peak of his powers this season and not even an entire season of inaction at Garankuwa United in South Africa has blunted his effectiveness in front of goal.
The striker failed to play any competitive match last season after United failed to secure him a work permit, and not many believed he had the mental stamina to come back this strong and lead the lines with such authority at Bantu once again.
With 10 strikes at the half-way stage of the 26-match season, Marabe is now leading the Premier League’s scoring charts and is one player who can make a difference when Bantu wade into the stormy and unchartered waters of continental football in February.
The backline of A Matšo Matebele, as Bantu are affectionately known, has also been one of their strongest points and I believe the international experience of Thapelo Mokhehle, Tlali Maile, Thabo Masualle and either Thabiso Mohapi or Sepiriti Malefane, will come in handy going into this competition.
Mangasport might have just won their seventh league title and would be taking part in their sixth Caf Champions League campaign, but like I said, in Bantu, they face a determined foe fighting for their country and hoping to come out with a result.
It has been proved on countless occasions that teams from outside the country struggle to beat Lesotho sides at Setsoto Stadium and I believe if Shale and his charges can return from Gabon with a draw, then their passage to the next stage is all-but guaranteed, provided the players remain grounded and focused on the task at hand.
There are certain coaches who have the ability to get the best out of their players, and I rate Shale among that illustrious group, hence my optimism that he can take this team far as far as the Champions League is concerned.
Many pundits have been arguing that although Lioli and Matlama did not pass the first stage of the Caf Champions League, at least they managed to register wins at home, while LCS also once managed a draw against Dynamos of Zimbabwe, which the same experts believe should be applauded.
However, I believe, Bantu might just edge it and not only win at home and also away and reach that point of the competition where everything and anything would now be possible.
Meanwhile, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the athletes, fans and administrators who made 2014 a truly remarkable sporting year for Lesotho.
I am looking forward to an equally exciting 2015, and of-course, our very own Bantu bringing us the honours that we have so much craved for, for so long.
Happy Sporting 2015.