MASERU — After moving a step forward through a victory over Burundi, Lesotho national soccer team went two steps back on Sunday after a shock defeat to lowly Sao Tomè.
The win over Burundi in a preliminary 2014 World Cup qualifier last November had brought a flood of hope that this was a new beginning for Likuena.
However, Sunday’s loss has brought Lesotho crashing back down to earth.
The sad truth is Likuena are out of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers thanks to a defeat to a Sao Tomè team ranked 196th in the world and 51st out of 53 Caf countries.
Likuena are the first team on the continent to be knocked out of the 2013 qualifiers after Swaziland pulled out against the Seychelles in the other preliminary tie.
But more than the loss it was the performance that was the most disappointing aspect from Sunday’s disaster at Setsoto Stadium.
Lesotho was lethargic and lacked any aggression or purpose to overturn the 1 — 0 deficit from the first leg.
Although the Likuena management vehemently disagrees, the players looked tired after only arriving in Lesotho on Friday, three days later than scheduled.
It is really a far cry from the high of overcoming Burundi to progress to the 2014 World Cup qualifiers that start in June.
The morale sapping defeat has raised many questions not only about the team, but also its leadership.
In what was meant to be a celebration, with Likuena playing in their snazzy new Basutoland Ink kit for the first time, things just never went to plan from the first whistle.
Indeed, it took until the 23rd minute for Lesotho to mount its first attempt at goal, when Motlalepula Mofolo’s speculative effort scraped wide.
Tactically, things also weren’t working from early on.
Likuena coach Leslie Notši tried to change this by swapping the wide-men Lieta Lehloka and Katleho Moleko, who both struggled to get into the game but it didn’t have the desired effect.
Lesotho was unable to string any passes together and were most wasteful in possession.
It would have been understandable in the opening stages, taking into account early nerves, but as the half wore on it was clear Sao Tomè were a much inferior side.
Yet balls were continually pumped long towards Dlomo Monapathi and possession repeatedly lost.
In midfield, meanwhile, Motlalepula Mofolo and Bokang Mothoana were unable to dictate the pace of the game.
It was symptomatic of the lack of aggression to force things in the final third, to at least make the visitors uncomfortable.
The second half didn’t improve much and at times the team resembled a shambles in the way it was set up.
At one point Lesotho looked to be playing with four strikers, with Monapathi, and Lehlomela Ramabele — a rare shining light in the game — joined by substitutes Bushy Moletsane and Thapelo Tale in the final third.
It didn’t look convincing or particularly structured, which is the most worrying aspect with Ghana, Zambia and Sudan on the horizon.
Without proper structure in play, any possibility of pressure was therefore negated.
It took until the final 10 minutes for Lesotho to start to mount any sort of concerted pressure on the visitors.
But chances were wasted, none more so than a last minute effort blazed over by Tale, to the anguish of an estimated 6 000 spectators at Setsoto.
The team selection also raised questions.
Monapathi, Mothoana, Moleko and Moletsane were all nursing injuries and only started training on the team’s return home.
This brings forth one of the most disappointing things from the loss — graduates from the Under-20 team, Litšepe Marabe and Tšoanelo Koetle were not considered.
The team definitely needed energy.
But blame can’t be put all on Notši who has done a fantastic job with Lesotho over the past two years.
The administration has questions to answer. The whole trip itself was beset by problems, with Likuena missing flights en-route back home, having to spend four days stuck in Gabon.
That’s not good enough.
The Lesotho Football Association (Lefa) says they only got the dates for the fixture in December.
Although this is true the identity of the opponents was made known in late October and contingency plans should have been made.
Certainly things like the US dollars fiasco didn’t have to wait until the last minute.
So it all snow-balled into the team being unable to perform when the country needed it most. If that is how things will be then we have plenty to worry about.
The next target is the World Cup qualifiers. There shouldn’t be any panic.
There is still something good going on and we shouldn’t throw it away.
We have a good team that can rise to the occasion on a sunny day.
But Sao Tomè has shown us there are areas that need immediate attention, on and off the field.
We really need to get our house in order if we are going to make any impact in football.
It will be a tough World Cup group; Ghana, Zambia and Sudan are all at the ongoing African Nations Cup tournament.
Nevertheless, it is everyone’s expectation that Lesotho can compete, not just participate.
You learn more from failure than victory. Hopefully Lesotho learns from this Sao Tomè defeat and goes on to better things, or else.