When Botswana Women’s football team first played a competitive match, they were embarrassed 14-0 by a rampant South African side.
Much has changed since that dark April day in Harare 18 years ago.
Last year, the Mares knocked the mighty Banyana Banyana out of the Olympic Qualifiers, narrowly losing to the same opposition in last month’s COSAFA Cup Final.
Much of the success for their transformation from the whipping girls of Africa to serious contenders is down to Gaoletlhoo Nkutlwisang.
Christened ‘Ronaldo’ because of her deadly finishing during her playing days, the 40-year-old has been the Coach of the Mares for the last decade, lifting the ladies to heights that were once unimaginable.
In this interview with The Voice’s PORTIA MLILO, Nkutlwisang relieves her journey from the dusty streets of Maun to the top of local football.
Of all the sports you could have picked, how did you end up in football?
At primary school, during our time we had only netball and football codes.
I tried netball but I was not good at it.
One day I found boys playing football on our street and I joined them.
I was not able to play for my school during school sport competitions because I was a girl in a boys’ team but I never missed training and friendly games.
I was even better than most of the boys at Gantsi Primary School.
In 1997, I joined Rallies Football Team still playing with men and I scored for them during village tournaments.
Considering the stigma surrounding the sport being a ‘man’s game’, how did your parents take your football passion?
My parents did not approve.
I got support from my teachers at school.
I was even hiding my kit and soccer boots under the bed because I did not want to be whipped for going against my parents’ wishes.
They wanted me to play netball but, as I said, I was not good at it.
You eventually joined Double Action in Gaborone. How did that happen?
There was one lady who saw me playing in a tournament in Maun in 1999.
She told the owner of the Double Action women football team, Senki Sesinyi, about me and he recruited me to join them.
He called my mother and she was very reluctant to allow me to relocate to Gaborone, questioning my safety.
But I could see that her main concern was that I would be playing football.
I sat down with her, showing her the advantages of playing for a women’s team and that it would give me a platform to catch the eye of senior national team coach’s, and eventually, she released me.
Since I joined Double Action, we won the league without fail up until 2008 when I quit playing.
How did your ‘Ronaldo’ nickname come about?
I was deadly and scoring many goals so my teammates said I was scoring brilliant goals like Portuguese professional footballer, Christian Ronaldo (Laughing).
When did you develop an interest in coaching?
My legs were tired and I wanted to have a contribution to the development of the girl child in football.
I started coaching courses in 2008 and I was Double Action assistant coach.
In 2013, I coached Township Rollers and won the league for the first time in their history.
That was the year Double Action were unable to defend their league.
For the national team, I was an assistant coach for U20 before I became the senior national team head coach.
Two years back I registered my own team, Geronah FC.
It is well documented that the lady’s national team coach does not receive a salary, which must be a source of frustration considering the huge contract your male counterpart is reportedly on! Anyway, financially how do you survive?
I am a qualified technician specialising in fixing air-conditioning and refrigeration, working at the Department of Building & Engineering Services (DBES).
I am also a farmer and with the little, I get from my coaching volunteerism I buy small livestock.
What challenges do you face as the Mares coach?
Where do I start? There are lots of challenges.
I do not even have a contract because I am just a volunteer head coach for the national team and I do not earn a salary.
When we are in camp I get P150 per day.
I compete with coaches who earn salaries, have resources, and their players are even paid at the club level.
With us its volunteerism, even for the players, they are not paid at their clubs.
We do not even have a league and it makes it difficult for me to assemble a squad when we have a tournament for the national team.
Unlike the men’s head coach, I do not have the opportunity to travel around the country searching for talent.
Most of the players are based in Gaborone.
A lot still needs to be done to grow the game, which I believe is neglected!
Wow, it sounds like hard work! What has kept you motivated for so long?
Passion! I love the game and my country and I believe one day someone will recognise us, especially when we bring results.
I know there are some who think I am not good enough but I will keep fighting until we qualify for a major event like the World Cup.
It is difficult to motivate players but I always advise them to double their efforts in competitions to catch the eye of international clubs.
Speaking of bringing results, you certainly did just that at last month’s COSAFA Cup. Towards the end of the semi-final against Zambia, with the team 2-1 up it was noticeable you kept glancing at your watch! What was going through your mind?
Our opponents were piling too much pressure on us, especially after scoring a goal and they had the upper hand in terms of ball possession.
We have a solid defence, led by our fantastic Captain, Bonang Otlhagile.
But in football, a slight mistake can mess the game.
Hear me right, I do trust my team; I also felt the pressure.
This is the team that knocked us out and qualified for the Olympics last year.
They were too quick going forward.
We were on the edge of making history and I knew back home Batswana were banking their hopes on us.
The girls fought like true ambassadors for their country.
It was unfortunate that in the final some gave South Africa too much respect in the first minutes of the game, which killed our plans and we ended up losing 2-1.
Finishing the tournament as runners-up, what does that mean to you?
It means we are heading somewhere.
There is light at the end of the tunnel.
This achievement really means a lot for us as a team.
I have coached this team for a long time and this is my greatest achievement.
It is always good to produce results.
I was very happy with the support and motivation we got from Minister Rakgare.
It was the first time we got that kind of support and such an incentive [P250, 000 to be shared amongst the squad].
I believe this achievement will open doors for us and sponsors will come on board.
Also, international teams saw that Botswana has talent.
I will be glad if at least four players are signed internationally because that will improve our skills.
From when you started to today, how has women’s football developed in terms of playing quality and administration?
This team used to concede an average of nine goals a game.
Ever since I came the margin has reduced to at least three!
For the first time last year, we knocked out South Africa, a team that has played in the World Cup, from the Olympic Qualifiers.
I think we have improved in terms of play and people are starting to realise we have talent.
What we are lacking is development.
We need to have proper development structures from the primary school level, which feeds the national team.
That is where the BFA leadership should focus.
The association is also supportive, they helped me to do my B Licence but it is not complete.
I have not done the practical so I am currently using the Olympic solidarity one.
Who is your inspiration?
Brazil women’s national football team Coach, Pia Mariane Sundhage is my inspiration.
She won the Olympics twice when she was coaching the United States and won a Silver medal in the World Cup and was also the FIFA 2012 Coach of the Year.
We once met at the FIFA awards in Italy and we exchanged numbers so we always chat.
I sometimes seek advice from her when I have a competition.
Banyana Banyana coach, Desiree Ellis is also my inspiration and always encourages me to keep on pushing against all odds.
For the good of the women’s game, we certainly hope you do! And on that note, Thank God It’s Friday, what are your plans for the weekend?
Movement permit granted I will go to the cattle post at Haka, between Komaneng and Toteng, to check on my livestock.
If I do not get the permit, I will be just in Gaborone attending women’s football tournaments scouting for talent.
News6 days ago
Pitsane West murder suspect still at large
News5 days ago
Covid-19 patient commits suicide
News6 days ago
Double murder suspect remanded in custody
News6 days ago
Dutlwe chief back in court for threatening to kill wife
News4 days ago
Maun a hot spot for new Covid-19 variant
News3 days ago
Boy, 8, allegedly witnesses mum’s murder
News2 days ago
Jilted lover threatens to kill ex-girlfriend like her late cousin
News2 days ago
De Beers urged to reconsider Frontline Reward Initiative