Mohapi, Makepe speak on journey with junior teams
It’s been three years since the Lesotho Football Association roped in Bafokeng Mohapi (BM) and Makepe Motolo (MM) as full-time coaches for its national Under-20 and Under-17 teams.
The duo’s responsibilities extended to the senior team, where under a new coaching strategy introduced in 2019, they doubled-up as the assistant coaches to the head coach of the Men’s Senior national team.
The LeFA media team sat down with the gaffers to look back at the three years since their appointments as resident coaches as well as the experience gathered working with the senior national team.
LeFA: It’s been three years since the Association roped you-in as full-time coaches working with the junior national teams as well as doubling up as assistant coaches for the senior team, Likuena. Take us through that journey?
MM: It’s been a tough journey because immediately after we started, Covid-19 pandemic created chaos across the globe and football activities were on hold for almost a year. Despite all that, we tried our best to have our programmes up and running like scouting for young talent across the country though it was very challenging because of the lockdowns when the virus was at its peak.
Unfortunately, in my first year after I was appointed as the coach of the Under-17, we couldn’t take part in any international competition because of the disruptions brought by the pandemic and I believe that had it not been for that, we would have hit the ground running.
BM: To be honest, it was a very difficult period for all of us because most of our programmes failed to take off. If you recall, we were able to take part in the COSAFA Under-20 tournament that was staged in South Africa but had very little time to prepare as the country had been on a lockdown for months and most of our players had not been active for almost eight months. Our performance was not good at all and it was not surprising because of that long layoff.
I believe the good move by the Association to make us resident coaches has given us an opportunity to fully focus on the teams and their development. Having the tools to go across the country to scout for young talent made life very easy for us because we managed to reach places where you would think we wouldn’t go. I’m very happy because this past year, we had players coming from each of the ten districts of this country and it’s just unfortunate that the COSAFA tournament was called off as the pandemic was once again wreaking havoc in the region heading to the tournament that was scheduled for Eswatini in December last year.
Majority of the players that were in the team were at the previous tournament in 2020, but this time around, we had prepared ourselves very well and the players had gathered a lot of experience and international exposure from the friendly games we had played in our preparations. With time, I have no doubt that the country will reap good rewards from the Under-17 and Under-20 teams because of the current set up where we also have even the Under-23 team.
LeFA: It’s a dream come true for any coach to be given such a responsibility. How big is it for your careers to be coaching the Lesotho national team?
BM: It’s a massive opportunity which comes with a lot of growth in our work as coaches. It changes the game completely because you get to compete against international coaches. You get to cross paths with some of the best in the business, which helps the learning process to be quicker. it’s a motivation to dream big and want to test yourself against the best. You get to develop that hunger of one day getting an opportunity to coach in a foreign country. Being a national team coach gives you the exposure to grow and develop as a coach. It’s a rare opportunity for one to coach his country and it has always been our wish to be full time coaches working for the Association.
MM: It’s an honour that I was selected among a big group of local coaches to be part of the national teams coaching set up. I’m humbled to be honest to have been tasked with such a big responsibility to be the coach of the Lesotho Under-17 team. It gives me the opportunity to grow as a coach and get to work and mingle with the best in our region and continent, which I have no doubt that will contribute to my growth. I always say, we are here to represent all the coaches in the country as they do all the spade work for us working with the players daily. So, it’s very important that we have a good working relationship with all of them to be able to serve the country at best of our abilities. We are grateful that the Association has given us this opportunity and we should return the favour by doing as expected to live a legacy for those that will come after us.
LeFA: You finally got to taste your first tournament in charge of Bahlabani with the COSAFA Under-17 tournament that was part of the AUSC Region 5 Games on home soil. Take us through that experience?
MM: As the technical team, we were very happy with the overall performance of the team. Our target when the tournament started was to do well in the competition. As a coach you, go to every tournament with one thing in mind and that is to win. But for us, it was also important that we have an identity as a team. we had a model of play that we introduced to our team and they were able to play as we have planned though we did not get the result that we wanted. We had a lot of challenges such as school commitments and five members of our squad tested positive after playing the first match, which worked against us. We had prepared the boys mentally not to get the stage fright and I think the boys didn’t disappoint as much as we were knocked out in the group stage, but it was a performance that we were all happy with. We were down fighting.
LeFA: Coach Baf, your first year in charge of the team was baptism of fire, where your team was in the group of death alongside South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique, who went all the way to clinch the 2020 edition of the tournament. It was surely disappointing that the 2021 tournament was cancelled after all the preparations you had with your team…
BM: Indeed, we had prepared ourselves very well because majority of the players that had played in the previous tournament were still eligible for the 2021 edition of the tournament but must be faced out as we prepare this year’s tournament. We changed a lot as far as our playing style is concerned and we should thank our former colleague Mr. Thabo Senong because he contributed a lot in the changes, we made to our playing style. We went to Eswatini and Botswana as part of the preparations and we were able to test all the changes we had implemented in the way we play and I think, it proved to be working based on the results we got from those friendly matches.
It was heart-breaking that after the long preparations, the tournament was called off because of Covid-19, but we were all eager to see the team playing at the tournament. it hurt the players a lot because they were looking forward to playing at the COSAFA tournament. We had really made great strides so much that they believe we could go all the way to the final. Majority of them have since graduated to the Under-23 team and I have no doubt that they will continue to grow from strength to strength. I believe in three to four years, many of them will make it to the senior national team. They have all the attributes to succeed at the bigger stage with Likuena. We are proud to say that there were no age cheats in both the Under-17 and 20 teams, which is the right step in the right direction for all of us. The investment will work wonders for us in no time. We have a lot of work to do as coaches because there is a lot of talent in the country, but we must instil and teach these boys the importance of discipline in a life of an athlete.
LeFA: Our Junior teams used to do well in COSAFA and other competitions in the past especially the Under-20, as we all know qualified for the Africa Youth Championship twice in 2005 and 2011 as well as the reaching the final of COSAFA Championship in 2003 and 2017. Is that something you also dream of in your tenures as the Under-17 and Under-20 coaches?
BM: Definitely, like I said, it was our ambition to do well at the tournament that was cancelled. We wanted to go all the way to the final. The belief and confidence were there in our camp, but unfortunately the tournament was called-off due to the challenges of Covid-19. It was our dream to compete for gold and the players believed it was possible because in the 2020 tournament, we lost 1-0 to Mozambique and they managed to go all the way to win the tournament. we all felt we had a very good chance, and it was my ambition too as the coach to compete for silverware. We had started very early with our preparations and we thank the Technical Director and Secretary General for having been supportive throughout the year.
We will still compete going forward, but we have lost most of our key players, who have since graduated to the Under-23 team and the current team is now dominated by new faces. I must also commend a few of the academies that we have in the country such as Kick4Life, because they have been of great help to us in terms of providing players.
MM: Our focus is to produce players of high quality that can go on to help our Under-20 team to compete and qualify for big international competitions. For us, the Under-17 is the entry point for players to start competing and get the necessary experience that will help them compete to qualify for international competitions once they reach the level of Under-20. It’s the ambition for every coach to qualify and win tournaments and that’s the goal for me as well, but the most important is to produce players of high quality that will represent us well as they graduate to different phases of international football. we are on the right track with our youth programmes because the kids are getting the chance to play and get international exposure, which is very important for their growth. It’s only when they are getting exposure that we will be able to compete and qualify for major tournaments. What is key at this stage is to get it right with our scouting programme. Once we can scout the right players for our teams, it will help us to be competitive with both the Under-17 and Under-20. The job is much easier now because we are full time coaches with the Association, and we can assist each other on every programme we undertake.
LeFA: You have both coached at club level and do you think the Premier League big guns are coming to the party as far as the development of players is concerned?
MM: It has been our biggest challenge for years. Development is the only way that our football can improve for the better. For me, we have two ways where we can develop young talent, the first option can be through our clubs having proper youth development structure and secondly, through school sports. if school sports can go back to being competitive like they used to be years ago, then half of the problem is solved. This is where you have kids in big numbers, give them the chance to play and grow the passion of playing and competing. I have no doubt that if we can go back to being competitive at school sports, then we will get to produce top athletes at all levels and not just in football but across the board. The teams will also have to come to the party and do their part by giving those young players a chance to play and get to be developed through the right channels. The Association has invested and trained a lot of coaches, who if they can dedicate their time to coaching in schools, we will get it right.
BM: When you talk about our premier league clubs having sound development structure, I don’t think there is any that has anything like that. Maybe, we can talk about Kick4Life and to be honesty that brings a lot of pressure to the national team coaches. We always expect them to perform miracles, yet we are not doing what we must do as clubs, which is to produce players of good quality. I mean, look at how difficult it has been for us to get replacements for Basia Makepe and Nkau Lerotholi as far as the senior national team is concerned. Is it okay that the fans continue to criticise their selection to the senior national team? For me it says as clubs, we are not doing our work of producing players properly.
Our teams are doing nothing honestly about developing young players. It’s a struggle to get Under-20 players from the premier league clubs and we now know that we must go to the A Division and other lower divisions to get players for the Under-20 and unfortunately their level is not good enough for those players to help us compete internationally. It’s different with other countries because they have academies, which develop players from the age of 13. It’s a concern even for the senior national team because there is never a time, we have had a 20-year in the Likuena squad and honestly speaking, things must change with our clubs, they need to invest in proper development structures to help our football improve. From time to time, you see clubs like Bayern Munich, Liverpool, and Arsenal fielding an 18-year-old. When last did you hear of Bantu, Matlama or Lioli fielding an exceptional player of that age?
Maybe, we should go back to the drawing board and have regulations that will force all the premier league clubs to have at least two Under-18 players in the list of registered players with every season.