BY KEVIN O’NEILL
Describing himself as English football’s answer to Phileas Fogg, Peter Butler has seen as much of the world in a 14-year coaching career than most folk might see in a lifetime.
From starting in the dug-out as caretaker manager of hometown club Halifax Town at the turn of the century, the former Southend and West Ham United midfielder had spent his entire coaching career going from post to post in south east Asia (and for a period in Australia) before eventually pitching up to manage the Botswana national team two years ago.
The challenges that Butler would face on his arrival to Gaborone, the capital of this beautiful landlocked country in southern Africa, would be sizeable, with Botswana having only ever qualified for one major tournament, the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. They had waited over 50 years to crack that particular nut since first attempting to qualify in the late fifties.
In terms of the World Cup, Botswana have never even come close to qualification and, in fact, for 60 years between 1930 and 1990, and then again for the 1998 tournament in France, they never even entered the qualification process.
Under local coach Stanley Tshosane, however, they did manage to reach a first major tournament (the 2012 African Cup of Nations) and subsequently rose to their highest ever FIFA ranking (53rd). But they failed to register a single point from three group games during their Cup of Nations debut, losing against Ghana, Guinea and Mali. And not long after, Tshosane was removed from his position as manager, leaving Butler, fresh from a stint as manager of T-Team in Malaysia’s top-flight, to take the reins.
Despite saying that he has always been open-minded about where he worked, Butler had never previously been to any part of Africa, instead spending his previous coaching days in Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand. And he had never managed at international level.
But to him, there was absolutely nothing unusual about approaching his first day at the office completely blindfolded.
On the contrary, Butler said, his bold move to African football had merely been another exciting test of his ability to reach out to a new group of players, and to try to quickly instil confidence and a zest for the game among a group of players not particularly used to winning and enjoying their football.
“I have always gone where the opportunity was and have always wanted a challenge”, Butler remarked.
“I love coaching in challenging places and making a difference to the lives of young players, and Botswana, to me, was no different. I take great satisfaction from helping young players to improve and that’s something that I’ve always taken with me, whether in south east Asia or in Botswana. That approach has certainly made me a better coach and more importantly a better person”, he added.
“In 2013, I was approached for the Technical Director job by the previous CEO in the Botswanan FA (BFA) but I turned it down.
“Three months later they came back and asked me to interview for the national team job, so I went to Botswana and delivered my plan and outline – and I never went home. It was actually my first trip to Africa and I had no idea what I was letting myself in for, but I have no regrets about going there. The country is amazing, if you travel far and wide like I have done, and the people are truly amazing. They have been good to me and that is something I will always be grateful for.”
Indeed, the former British protectorate (known as Bechuanaland until it’s independence in 1966), might be well-known as one of the continent’s most stable countries, and the largest producer of diamonds in the world, but what about the standard of football there?
Butler, to his credit, pulled no punches when quizzed about the domestic league, the Botswana Premier League, and the need for greater investment to properly coach the country’s up and coming talent, something that Butler is acutely up-to-date with having worked with young Botswanan players, from Under-13 level up, since arriving there.
“Its no secret that the domestic League has had many political issues, which have really held it back from where it should be going.
“When I first came it was progressing nicely but infighting and football politics have derailed it and its in a mess at the moment,” he said.
And Butler cannot be accused of over-dramatising the ‘mess’ that has embroiled this year’s top division in Botswana.
At the crux of the matter has been an administrative muddle that has done little to harness the semi-professional league’s image across the continent.
For a true fiasco has, indeed, enveloped the domestic game since the controversial transfer of national team midfielder Ofentse Nato to the Gaborone based Township Rollers early in the year, after his contract expired at the Indian Super League side Atletico de Kolkata.
Farcically, the unnecessary fall-out that followed Nato’s arrival on home soil presented a situation whereby the 2015/16 league season had still not concluded by the start of the pre-season preparations for the 2016/17 campaign.
The league usually ends in mid-May but a deluge of appeals and counter-appeals (by the Rollers, their nearest title challengers Mochudi Centre Chiefs and another team, Gilport Lions) over the Rollers fielding of Nato in three league games, and the subsequent questionable handling of same by the Botswana FA and its disciplinary committee, left the league unfinished at time of writing (late July, 2016).
In the last few weeks, the Botswanan FA (BFA) ordered that a title play-off match be played between the Rollers and Centre Chiefs. But the ruling also included the stipulation that the teams could only field players registered with the clubs for the 2015/16 season.
As it had been several months since the scheduled end of the 2015/16 season, many of the players registered for that season had left the respective clubs on the expiration of their contracts.
Yes, both clubs had signed some new players with the 2016/17 season in mind but they would not be permitted to partake in the play-off match.
So, the upshot of it all was that when the play-off match eventually took place, Mochudi Centre Chiefs could only field SEVEN players – against a full XI for the Rollers.
To say the least, the ‘match’ had more than a farcical element to it and matters reached almost comical proportions when a Chiefs’ player suffered concussion and had to leave the field of play, thus reducing his side to a mere SIX players. In line with Botswana FA Play Rules & Regulations, the match was abandoned, as seven players is the minimum amount a team can play with at any given time.
The Rollers’ manager, former Port Vale goalkeeper Mark Harrison, was understandably frustrated after the first half abandonment, suggesting to a local news outlet that Chiefs had brought the game into disrepute and should be suitably punished by the BFA. Meanwhile, the Chiefs’ stand-in manager Zaahid Jalal claimed his club tried their best to fulfil the fixture but had suffered through lapses of contracts, retirements and injuries.
The Rollers had been leading 1-0 when the game was abandoned, but in any event, the play-off remained unplayed (at writing) – and the league trophy left gathering dust, out of reach of both clubs, for now.
Despite its current off-field struggles, Butler remains adamant that, on the field at least, the Botswana Premier League has a lot to offer.
“It’s a League that certainly has legs and massive potential and the ability to really progress if run in a professional manner. We do have some really exciting young players in the league but it needs change and some real radical decisions must be taken,” he said.
In Botswana, he continued, a ‘raw passion’ for the game dictates that the country’s young children are always drawn to playing it.
And these youngsters can now begin to see that earning a good living from the game could be possible by drawing inspiration from some of the players deemed good enough to transfer to clubs in the neighbouring South African Premier Soccer League (PSL). Players like Mogogi Gabonamong, Joel Mogorosi and Mogakolodi Ngele have followed that path in recent years and Butler predicts that Botswanan players could be capable of even greater exploits in the near future.
“Many are now moving to the PSL, which is a good move, but in the near future I can see many of them moving further afield and into Europe.
“They certainly have the ability but it’s all about clubs taking a punt on them and getting them over for training stints. Since I came here, I was determined to build a new young team and many of those young players are now moving abroad to play, which is a positive move. The overseas exposure will only benefit them. Botswana is a small country but a very proud one and potentially the world is their oyster in many respects, and I think that once one Botswanan player goes to Europe, there will be a flood of them going thereafter.”
Until such a time arrives though, they remain closer to home, where Butler continues to run the rule over some of the country’s most promising players.
And from the start of his term in Botswana, one of Butler’s main targets was to lower the average age of the senior national team. He has managed to do so and by his reckoning over half of the senior team squad will be 23 or under in a few more years.
Butler truly believes in giving youth its chance and even though the team took a couple of hits early on in friendly matches, Butler’s record since taking over has been quite respectable, losing just eight times in 18 matches (including against countries with far greater resources like Egypt, Mali and Uganda).
They also came through the opening couple of rounds of qualification in the quest to reach the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations, but ultimately fell short in a final qualifying group phase that included Egypt, Senegal and Tunisia.
“The team has done fantastic and in many respects we have punched above our weight and given many big teams in Africa a run for their money. When I took over we were well down in the rankings and sliding quickly. We had an average age of over 30 and too many players were in the comfort zone – but now we are 87th in the FIFA rankings and 24th in Africa, which is a big achievement for our young team. I feel like I turned it upside down by scouring the whole country for young players. I oversaw the U20s and U23s and identified and promoted many youngsters. Okay, we won a few and lost a few but we developed as a group, both individually and collectively. We got to the group stages in qualifying for the 2015 Cup of Nations but the opposition in our group was much stronger than us. But we competed against Egypt, Senegal and Tunisia and learned a lot from it, even managing a scoreless draw against Tunisia, who have been to four World Cups and won the Africa Cup of Nations in 2004,” he said.
“I think we have to put things in perspective when talking about reaching major tournaments and understand that if you wish to qualify for tournaments then you have to invest in the national team structure and plan in a professional manner, knowing that preparation is everything,” he continued.
“But now, what we do have is a solid foundation to move forward and a good young healthy squad that puts performance first and payment second. I believe that the team, in the next three to five years, can do very well, but we have to be realistic and get our house in order first before we can have visions of grandeur. We have a lot of hard work to do, on and off the field, if we wish to go to the next level,” he added.
Again though, the fruits of Butler’s labour, coupled with the raw but admirable potential of his players, was really evident when Botswana finished the recent COSAFA Cup (an annual tournament for teams from southern Africa) as unfortunate runners-up to their closest rivals, South Africa.
Sadly, the deciding match, played in the Namibian capital, Windhoek, was an occasion when Butler and his team came face-to-face with the type of inadequate refereeing that has so often plagued football in Africa.
Having defeated the host nation and DR Congo in the previous rounds, Botswana were right in the contest as the decider entered its final few minutes.
But with just two minutes remaining, Zambian referee Janny Sikazwe – who earlier should have sent-off South Africa’s Aubrey Modiba for stamping on Onkabetse Makgantai – controversially pointed to the penalty spot, adjudging Joel Morogosi to have handled Modiba’s cross in the Botswana box.
It was South Africa’s second penalty in the game and after the Orlando Pirates player Gift Motupa put it in the net, Botswana’s dream of clinching a first ever tournament win had vanished, as their neighbours revelled in a fourth ever COSAFA Cup triumph.
An irate Butler, speaking after the match, said that the COSAFA Cup could never gain credibility on the back of such ‘shameful’ refereeing decisions.
“This tournament will never ever gain any leverage or credibility when we have atrocious and disgusting and shameful refereeing decisions – not just tonight but throughout that tournament. We were the better team for the majority of the game. Good luck to South Africa, I wish them well, but I think it’s disgusting and shameful,” he said.
While Butler was devastated by the manner of his team’s cruel late loss, the nation would have taken many positives from the COSAFA Cup run, despite the defeat in the final, doing nothing to quell Botswana’s long-standing sporting inferiority complex when it comes to neighbouring South Africa.
But as Butler pointed out earlier, Botswanan football is not short on character and potential, and hopefully going so close in Windhoek might spur them on to further develop in the coming years. However, it also appears that Botswanan football is in great need of better guidance, off the field, and a bit more time to develop before the current crop of youthful and vibrant internationals can be recognised as a truly successful outfit.
Yet, with his contract as team manager approaching its end, one wonders if it will be Butler or another who takes the responsibility of fine-tuning the skills of Botswana’s emerging yet still developing young side?
“I honestly don’t know what my future holds at this moment,” Butler admitted.
“Coaching an international team is very different to the day-to-day of club coaching. I have loved the experience and feel like I’ve made a big difference to the player’s mindsets, and that I’ve given them hope and opportunities. My contract is coming to an end and I have made some huge sacrifices personally along the way. I’ve missed my kids growing up, but I must say that Africa really gets a grip on you. The players are a joy to work with and I have not ruled out taking another team in the region or staying where I am. I have been approached by other countries to take over next year but I’ll sit down when the time is right and make a decision based on what is best for everyone. I have never ruled out going back to the UK but the buzz of coaching and managing abroad is something that I love, and Africa has certainly had a massive impact on me. It’s an amazing and mind-blowing place full of opportunities and surprises,” he finished.