Senong lays out the law

Senong lays out the law

MASERU – Two weeks ago the Lesotho Football Association (LEFA) unveiled South African tactician Thabo Senong as new coach of the national team, Likuena.
The hiring was a coup for Lesotho. Senong is highly-regarded across the region owing to his excellent spell in charge of South Africa’s national Under-20 side.

In his five years in charge of Amajita, Senong guided South Africa to successive FIFA Under-20 World Cup tournaments, the latest of which came in May in Poland.
Apart from being the first coach to accomplish that historic feat with South Africa, Senong achieved third place finishes at the 2017 and 2019 CAF Africa Under-20 Cup of Nations and won the COSAFA Under-20 Championship in 2017 and 2018.

When Senong’s contract was not renewed by the South African Football Association in June, Amajita’s loss was Lesotho’s gain.
LEFA swooped in and Senong’s first Likuena assignment came swiftly with last week’s 2022 FIFA World Cup preliminary qualifier against Ethiopia.
Although Lesotho performed admirably, including Sunday’s second leg at Setsoto Stadium in which Likuena hit the woodwork thrice, Likuena crashed out on the painful away goals rule following a 1-1 aggregate score-line.

That tie begins a busy introduction as Lesotho coach for Senong.
Next up for Likuena is a decisive 2020 African Nations Championship (CHAN) qualifier against Zimbabwe at the end of the month. November then brings the qualifiers for the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) where Lesotho has been drawn in Group L alongside Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Benin.

On Monday, the new Likuena boss sat down with thepost. In a wide-ranging interview, Senong laid out his plans and dreams for the team.

You must have had other offers following your impressive job with the South Africa Under-20 national team. What attracted you to the Likuena job?

To be honest, I am very passionate about development, (about) developing players and national teams because that is what I did for close to seven years in South Africa.
I have always recognised that Lesotho is also a developing country in terms of football. Lesotho has a lot of potential and a lot of talent after what I saw with their campaign to (qualify for the 2019 AFCON in) Egypt where they were just three points away (from qualifying) and what I saw in Durban during the COSAFA (Cup).

I saw (the Likuena job) as an opportunity to contribute to a country and to also learn from Lesotho because football is a universal game. You don’t only give, but take as well.
Many coaches learn from other countries, we borrow ideas and also knowing coaches such as ntate Mpitsa Marai, Bob Mafoso, Moses Maliehe, you could see that Lesotho is on the right track when it comes to producing potential coaches, so I just felt this would be a good opportunity because you cannot compare an opportunity to work for a club and an opportunity to work for LEFA.

The challenging assignment is the Lesotho one because I can influence the movements of some players. Some players can realise their dreams of playing in South Africa or maybe abroad. I can influence coaches in the Econet Premier League because there are a lot of up and coming coaches.
There is a nice group of young coaches that I can interact with, share ideas and try to improve the product which is Lesotho football. There are many factors that influenced my interest to come and be part of this project. I see it as a project that is going to grow.

With my experience – having taken Amajita to two World Cups, been part of the (South Africa) Under-23 Olympic team, part of an AFCON with Bafana Bafana – I just feel that with some of the little experience that I have gathered, I can be handy to the coaches in Lesotho and to LeFA.

What have been your first impressions of Lesotho football? What can be improved on?

If you talk about Lesotho football it is influenced by the cultural traits of the Basotho nation; they are artistic, they want to enjoy football, they are creative, they are skilful (and) that is football in Lesotho; (it) is all about possession, keeping the ball, knocking it around, entertaining the fans and making it as attractive as possible.
But, we know football is about results, football is about winning because we don’t play football inside a vacuum, we have to play in a global space against other people, so that is where our tactics or our playing style has to be flexible because we have a dream.

We want to see Lesotho qualify for tournaments, your AFCONs. We want to see Likuena win tournaments such as COSAFA.
It is important that we appreciate the current style of play which is too much love for possession. Let’s take that possession and put it into a very effective, attractive football that will create goals and influence a winning mentality within players and the Basotho nation.

I feel it is a nice style of possession but it really needs to be accelerated into positive possession because sometimes it can be just possession without really hurting the opponent because we don’t play alone, we play against other better nations.
It is important to be very effective and be very flexible with our tactics so that we are able to surprise other teams.

I think for the past decade many countries on our continent have an idea that Lesotho football is about keeping the ball, skills (and) creativity but they need to know Lesotho can also be dangerous with set-pieces; Lesotho can be very dangerous with effective, directive football.
Lesotho can be very flexible and surprise many countries because that’s what we are willing to do as the coaching staff.

Is there a particular style of play you prefer?

To be honest, throughout my formative years as a coach working at Orlando Pirates, Mamelodi Sundowns and, of course, the national teams in South Africa, I have always had passion for possession football.
I have always had passion for attacking football and for creative players to have freedom on the field but then it is also important to understand that a coaching philosophy must not be imposed on a country.

It is important to adapt my coaching philosophy to the players, to the mentality of Basotho because I need to respect what they have and try to be part of it and grow together as a collective coaching staff.
But, the way I see football is the same way Basotho see football which is about attacking but it must also be about scoring goals because the biggest problem we have at the moment in Lesotho is we don’t have many players that can play in the final third and score goals.

Can we fix that?

We need to get players that are just natural scorers playing in foreign leagues, then we can start to be dangerous. You can see the midfielders we have are creative and can create something out of nothing, if you look at Hlompho Kalake, Jane (Thaba-Ntšo).
There are many solid defenders, (such as) Basia (Makepe), (Tšoanelo) Koetle.
But, it is not a secret that our scoring rate is low and that is what we need to work on together with the Premier League coaches.

We need to come up with ideas of how we are going to improve our football in the final third because we can play in the defensive third, we can play in the middle but we don’t play in the final third.
We create chances but we don’t score as many goals as we should. If you compare us to countries like Nigeria, Morocco, and Senegal, those countries produce many attackers and that is why they are spoiled for choice.

You look at the generation of the current (Likuena) team; Masoabi (Nkoto) is really developing at Real Kings (in South Africa), (Motebang) Sera is really starting to get match minutes at Bloemfontein Celtic under ntate (Lehlohonolo) Seema, then, of course, Tumelo Khutlang as well coming from an injury, he is starting to be appreciated at Black Leopards.
Once these kinds of players start scoring goals in the foreign leagues – and even our local players, your Tšepo Seturumane, Mokone Marabe – once they start scoring goals, we can have balance.

On the Ethiopia game: what were your thoughts on the tie? Did it come too soon for you and your coaching staff?

Yes. As soon as I joined the camp it was never a secret that time was my enemy but I love challenges personally as a human being, and I hate losing, I hate failing.
One could have run away from the responsibility. I just took it hands-on and said, look we will go to Ethiopia and we will grind the results and we will come here to Setsoto and grind the results.

We worked hard putting the right tactics to make sure we frustrate the Ethiopians which we did very well but the end result is that we didn’t go through. We drew 1-1 at home and drew 0-0 away. You look at the chances we created and it clearly repeats that factor I was talking about that we have a problem in the final third.

We are still poor in finishing; we really need to improve that. It is not Senong’s problem and it is not Likuena’s problem but it is Lesotho’s football problem.
So the coaches of Premier League clubs also need to work hard in improving the scoring so that we can progress and succeed as a nation.

Is this your confirmed technical team with Mpitsa Marai as your assistant and Sam Ketsekile as the goalkeeper coach?

I am one person who appreciates continuity. I always preferred to build from the foundation and the technical team I am working with at the moment is a very unique technical team because you start with the (LEFA) technical director, ntate (Leslie) Notši. He has worked at every level of Lesotho football and for many years.

When you look at ntate Marai, he played for more than 10 years representing Likuena and he is a talented coach and he is doing well as the head coach of (Lesotho Correctional Service).
Sam (Ketsekile) is on a transition, he just finished his playing career and he is getting into goalkeeping coaching. He is looking forward to learn and to be a better goalkeeper coach for Likuena. So far in the last 10 days I have really enjoyed working with them. They have been really informative and they have given me a lot of information that I needed and they have been very cooperative.

It’s very important that you work with people from Lesotho who will understand the mentality of the players, the culture of Lesotho football.
But one thing we are discussing is just to improve the analysis department. There is a shortage because in football you have to analyse the opponents, you also need to analyse your own performance, so that is one member of the technical team that we need to reinforce.

Can we get that person in Lesotho? It is possible. Can we get that person outside of Lesotho? It is possible. But that’s what we are working on because football is evolving, it is very modern.
You really need to give players lots of information about their progress and also about their weaknesses and the strengths of the opposition as part of preparations.

Lesotho has never qualified for a major continental competition. Do you feel you can lead Likuena there? Is there an opportunity to do so with the 2020 CHAN?

To be honest, it’s one of the reasons I was motivated to take this challenge because, personally, I am a dreamer.
I am someone who likes to make a difference. When I joined the (South Africa) Under-20 team they were not qualifying for anything. Amajita was not qualifying for AFCONs but we made sure we qualify for three AFCONs and two World Cups against tough countries in West Africa.

So the reason I am here is because I see potential and I see players who have a dream. I see an association that has a dream because they have a TD (technical department) that is working very hard. They also have a secretary general (Mokhosi Mohapi) who is very ambitious to see Likuena representing Basotho.

I know to everyone it looks like an impossible group with Benin, Sierra Leone and Nigeria but it is a dream, we want to see ourselves in the 2021 AFCON, we want to see ourselves in CHAN finals and the first obstacle is Zimbabwe away and home, then November it is Sierra Leone away, Nigeria home.
It looks like a dream but if we work hard as a collective it can be possible; I mean, Likuena are better than Madagascar in terms of talent, and Lesotho, I can say, is better than Iceland as a country.

But, Iceland come from the (2018) World Cup, Madagascar had a nice run (at the 2019 AFCON). They had a dream and they worked hard, so what can stop us from having a dream and working hard towards that dream?
Unfortunately, we have to make radical changes in the training culture, in the camp, in the dressing room and even our tactical structure.

In those radical changes we will not make everyone happy but they are going to take Likuena to another step, because I cannot just come here and maintain what Basotho already had; we have to take it to another level.
I have to respect this country, it is one country that is close to my heart and I can never take it backwards. We cannot regress, we have to progress and whatever that was wrong with Likuena must be cut out immediately and whatever that was right must be maintained. That is what we are willing to do as the coaching staff.

How would you like to be remembered when you leave this position?

I want to be remembered as the coach that qualified Likuena into tournaments.
I want to be a coach that has given Likuena a gold medal, whether it is regional or continental, because Likuena are thirsty for a medal, they are thirsty to be present in a tournament.
But, I also want to be remembered as a coach that has contributed to the development of two players that will be playing in Europe because Lesotho and Basotho have succeeded in producing players to play in South Africa.

Seema has done well. He represented (Orlando) Pirates and wore the captaincy armband. Lekoane Lekoane (played in South Africa) back in the days. We had some juniors at Pirates but my dream is to see two players playing in Europe and Likuena getting a medal and Likuena qualifying for a major tournament.
If I could be remembered like that I would be able to say I have learnt so much but I have also given something to the country.

Tlalane Phahla


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