MASERU — We have been here before: the euphoria and unconfined joy, a young team with massive talent, an achievement against the odds and a nation rejoicing.
Just as the Under-20 class of 2004 became the first side to get Lesotho into the finals of a continental tournament, Makoanyane XI will be among Africa’s cream at the 2011 Caf African Youth Championship in March.
But that is where the similarities must end.
The Makoanyane XI team which qualified for the 2005 edition of the same tournament in Benin is now nowhere to be seen.
And the miserable failure to build on that side was exemplified by the Lesotho Football Association (Lefa)’s disbanding of Likuena, the senior national team, in February.
Indeed that is why this moment, which to be honest is only a development step, is so special — because Lesotho has been so starved of success on the football field.
That 2005 side, blessed with talents such as Tefo Maipato, Ralekoti Mokhahlane, Dlhomo Monapathi and Thabo Masualle, was never properly nurtured.
Only Bokang Mothoana, who now plies his trade in Tunisia, can be said to be fulfilling his potential.
Instead that special crop of players has spent the past six years stagnating while Likuena lost all their matches during the 2010 World Cup/Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.
The question now to Lefa is whether things will be any different this time round and whether Lesotho will build on this achievement.
Is there the administrative fortitude to set clear strategic plans?
Will this momentum be sustained?
Will Lehlomela Ramabele, Tšoanelo Koetle or Kopano Tseka lead a competitive Likuena in five years’ time?
Or will Lefa go down the same path again and let precious football talent rot away?
As Lefa’s public relations officer Baba Malephane said at Makoanyane XI’s post-match press conference, the side’s preparations for the African Youth Championship next March are vital.
But of even more importance is a strategy that will reap rewards long after the tournament has ended.
The main factor which destroys Lesotho’s football is the day-to-day structures which players are subjected to.
Simply put, the amateur status of local football is unsustainable and having a strong national team and players involved in high-level competition is not mutually exclusive.
Even with Makoanyane XI’s qualification their prospects over time in the current conditions are bleak because they are not exposed to an environment that will challenge them to develop.
In two years’ time Lesotho’s domestic football is supposed to be at least semi-professional.
This should be the local authorities’ main priority.
Lesotho has always fared well in youth football but this promise levels out because of the overall mediocrity of the league the players play in during what are supposed to be their best years.
Frankly, there is no way a country can achieve football success with a boozers’ or social league such as Lesotho’s premiership.
It is often put forward as a self-soothing excuse that there are “poorer” countries which succeed.
But Lesotho’s Premier League is unquestionably the worst run in the region, with the lowest profile and the worst facilities.
The step towards professionalising football is not a magic pill.
But a better structured club, for example, can manage a youth team, providing the possibility for national youth leagues and grassroots development.
For example, all Makoanyane XI players have been produced by current Premier League clubs through their meagre resources, not as a result of any Lefa programmes.
Under-20 coach Leslie Notši has already expressed concern at the standard of strikers at his disposal and has said he will attempt to engage in programmes with clubs because this is where players spend their time.
Unfortunately the biggest problem at the moment lies with the Premier League as an organisation.
The league is a lovey-dovey club that hopes for and lives off hand-outs.
That is why clubs’ grounds were not checked before the season and why sides like LMPS and LDF continue to have decrepit facilities even though they have the manpower to maintain and improve their facilities.
Time is running out and the ones who suffer most are the players.
Football is an interconnected industry.
Success on the field, with quality players and acceptable facilities such as LCS’s Central Prison, translates into interest, business and sponsorship off it.
It is a fallacy to believe this Under-20 team will just win on the senior international stage by having a couple of camps in the year and playing friendly matches.
That will help, but football at the highest level has changed — it is not for jokers anymore.
Football is an everyday operation to improve.
These are the fundamental reasons why the 2004 Under-20 team stagnated.
There is also a strong case to export the current Makoanyane XI talent.
But with no agents in Lesotho, Lefa in conjunction with relevant clubs have to set up clear strategies to find the players teams in stronger leagues.
It should not happen as it did in 2004 when Maipato, Monapathi, Neo Makama and Katleho Moleko were dumped at South African outfit Orlando Pirates to satisfy the greed of a certain few.
Those moves have done little for those players’ careers.
Meanwhile, Lefa president Salemane Phafane’s sentiments that the Under-20 players shouldn’t be polluted with talk of money rewards must be praised.
This is after all only an Under-20 team — they are for all intents and purposes still children.
Their journey in football is yet to start and talk of cash is destabilising.
But what this class of 2010, and others like them, deserve is a chance to build on their talent by providing them with an environment that will take theirs and the country’s football to the next level.