Football: South Africa's World Cup fever infects Botswana

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The Independent Online

Playing on a dusty ground with no sign of grass under Botswana's scorching desert sun, with shoes that have seen better days, young footballers dream of their heroes arriving in Africa for the World Cup.

"I think I would go mad the day I will see great football stars face to face," said Masego Mmolotsi, who plays for the middle division team Amagents FC.

"They are my heroes and they are the reasons why I am playing soccer, I just cannot do without football," he told AFP.

Botswana, like South Africa's other neighbours, are hoping that at least one of the World Cup teams will camp and practise on their soil. Mmolotsi said he hopes to have a chance to see stars like France's Thierry Henry, England's Wayne Rooney or Portugal's Christiano Ronaldo.

"We are hoping it will make a big difference. Gaborone is hoping to host one of the big teams for a training camp here - that would be fantastic," said Jonathan Laverick, British coach for Amagents, whose skills have been pressed into service for a country even more football-mad than his homeland.

"Hopefully it will all go off perfectly and people will have a really nice time, and see what Africa's really all about," he said.

"Football is the biggest thing in Botswana. Every village, every school, every work, every company has a football team. Come five o'clock, every football pitch in Botswana has people training on it - it is the life of Botswana," he added.

In Botswana, the enthusiasm has also been fueled by a new government programme that has created 1,582 community football teams, in a nation with just 1.9 million people.

President Ian Khama launched the scheme after he took office last year, and even highlighted its success in his state of the nation address last month.

"We shall therefore continue supporting these competitions, which are providing entertainment, promoting fitness and inculcating a spirit of camaraderie and shared values among participants," he said.

Most of these new teams operate on a shoestring budget. In 10 years, Amagents have climbed from the bottom of the fifth division to the top of the second, but they're still light years away from the turnover of even bottom-rung European clubs.

"As a club we probably survive on about 1,000 pounds (1,600 dollars, 1,100 euros) a year. That goes on kit for the first team, that goes on kit for the youth team. Our biggest expense is probably footballs - all the balls you see here today, we've stolen," Laverick said.

But here players say the excitement is more about associating themselves with the World Cup, as well as hopes for some economic spillover from the 450,000 foreign fans expected in South Africa for the month-long tournament that kicks off on June 11.

For 20-year-old Philips Phenyo, who plays for the grassroots team Molepolole Cosmos, life now revolves around counting the days down to the world's greatest football showcase, where he hopes to see at least one match.

"If I have to choose between having food on my table and buying a ticket for the World Cup, I would rather starve knowing that I will be going to watch either Brazil or England live," he said.

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