MASERU — Premiership rookies Bantu have probably surprised even themselves with the season they’ve had, so far.
Even with the first Fifa World Cup on African soil just around the corner A Matšo Makaota’s fairy-tale has been the talk of Lesotho football.
With just two defeats all season, Bantu are flying high, third in the Vodacom Premier League, level on points with the top two, and bidding to become the first team ever to win the championship straight after gaining promotion from the A Division.
Today, the Mafeteng club host fourth-placed LDF in arguably, Bantu’s most important match of the season so far.
The sides are separated by only three points in what is fast becoming Lesotho’s closest championship race ever.
But are Bantu really genuine title contenders?
A Matšo Makaota are the league’s form team with seven wins, no loss and 19 goals in their last nine matches.
Bantu have won 26 of their last 37 matches in A Division and the premiership.
However, speaking to the Sunday Express on Wednesday, Bantu president Leuta Leuta was eager to preach caution — it’s still too early to get carried away, he argues.
“The team is doing pretty well; we are just taking it one match at a time,” Leuta insists.
“We haven’t put ourselves under pressure. I’ve said to the coach and our players we have to focus on one game at a time. I’ve said I will only talk after at least eight matches into the second round. We have a tough game against LDF; maybe when we come back from Linare, we could start talking,” he adds.
With the run of fixtures facing Bantu, Leuta’s caution is warranted.
After today’s date with LDF, Bantu’s next match is away to title-rivals Matlama on March 13.
That clash is followed by games against Likhopo at home, Lioli away, Mphatlalatsane, home, and then Linare in Hlotse on April 10.
Nonetheless, for Bantu to even be in the title-picture after four seasons out of the elite league is an achievement in itself.
“There have been challenges and we are still facing them,” Leuta says.
“First of all, for the team to be where it is right now, it’s because of a massive injection of funds; that is always one of the challenges,” Leuta continues.
“Also, (most) matches are played on Saturdays and some of our players work for the local banks.
“If, for instance, we have a match in Butha-Buthe or Leribe and say we are leaving at 10am, banks will not let their employees leave at that time. We have gone to matches without a majority of our regulars — that happened when we played Butha-Buthe (Roses). We also have players who are unemployed and we are having to try, find them jobs.”
The majority of local footballers are either unemployed or at school, and players cannot earn a living through football.
And although Leuta reveals Bantu plan to embark on a payment system next season, local teams are run at a loss and A Matšo Makaota are no exception.
Gate receipts, for example, rake-in around M5 000 on a good day.
That is a drop in the ocean in comparison with the costs of a full season — transport, food and accommodation — estimated to be close to M200 000.
Well-wishers remain the only way clubs meet the demands of running a topflight team.
“When Mafeteng businesses are happy (with a win), they give players some rewards. For example, Sechaba Consultancy has provided our players free driving lessons,” Leuta says.
“There are other companies that have helped us,” he adds, citing Mafeteng Concrete Blocks, Leuta’s Hardware, Zakoora Brothers and International Cleaners as some of the foremost partners.
“They continue helping us financially. Without them, Bantu would not be where it is right now.”
Bantu’s budding success has been a boost for Mafeteng football, which fell apart after the formation of the Mafeteng-based rebel Football Association (FA).
The FA broke away from the Lesotho Football Association at the turn of the century.
A Matšo Makaota consequently suffered Premiership relegation in 2006.
But the FA’s demise and Leuta’s arrival as club president in 2008, have seen an upturn in fortunes.
Now Bantu are challenging Maseru’s Matlama and Berea’s Lioli for domestic football’s most prestigious accolade.
“District teams have to be strong. That’s why we have embarked on this ambitious drive to get people back to the stadium (and) our crowd is increasing,” Leuta says.
“We are already competing with them,” Leuta says.
“I don’t see anything that they are doing better. Bantu will develop into something greater. There are negotiations that we are in; when they are signed, then there are good things ahead. What I’m working towards is making Bantu a business. It’s very possible, but it’s something you have to build slowly.”
Bantu’s scheme includes moving to the new stadium in Mafeteng, which is being built by the government and is expected to be completed in April.
But for any club to compete it needs to be successful, and Leuta admits Bantu — who are trophy-less since the Independence Cup in 1997 — will need trophies to fuel their ambitions.
“It’s very impoptant to be in Cup finals and in major competitions. That boosts your profile and attracts sponsors,” Leuta admits.
“When we started this season, we said it was very important to be in the Top Four come end of the season; we would have done well if we can achieve that.”
Bantu have a six-point cushion on fifth-placed LMPS and that very coveted Top Four place is a possibility.
Leuta is full of praise for Bantu coach Bafokeng Mohapi and his squad.
“I believe in our players. We hunted for players who would stabilise the team, among them Chico (Tefo Maipato), Daniel (Jousse) and Cabazela (Thabiso Maile). Up to now, we are delighted with our coach, otherwise we would be asking for miracles from him,” Leuta jokes.
Perhaps Mohapi can lead Bantu to the greatest miracle of all — a Vodacom Premier League crown.
Lerotholi Polytechnic vs Majantja (Central Prisons); Joy vs Botha-Bothe Roses (Hlotse); Nyenye Rovers vs Mphatlalatsane (Maputsoe); Bantu vs LDF (Mafeteng).
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