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Luciah Phahla

Maseru – The unrelenting pain was one thing, but the exhausting doubts whether would ever return to the field of play were much worse.
It is almost two years since Lioli striker Tšepo Lekhooana suffered a career-threatening broken leg after colliding with Matlama goalkeeper Makhetha Thakeli during an afternoon Vodacom Premier League tie at Setsoto Stadium.

At the time – March 15, 2015 to be exact – there were genuine doubts he would be able to play football again, much less compete at the highest level.
Lekhooana, however, kept his head down and suffered in silence.
Pain and football are often inseparable and, in truth, only the strongest survive the beautiful game.
For Lekhooana the months of rehabilitation were at times unbearable but, renowned for his strength of physique and character from his formative Likhopo days, the striker finally returned to action in May towards the end of last season.

Fast forward a few more months down the line and the burly striker looks as strong as ever.
His impressive return to action has already been marked by winning the top goal-scorer award during the Independence Cup in October.
Lekhooana’s hat-trick against Sundawana in the semi-finals inspired ‘Tse Nala’ to the final where they edged Matlama 1-0 to claim gold.
Now, as Lioli look to secure an historic third successive league title, Lekhooana is set to be an integral part of the team in New Year.
It is a comeback story worthy of the big screen.

“There were times when I had those thoughts that I may never be able to play football again. But then I was hopeful when I saw people whom I thought would not return from injuries come back and play again. I believed I will also come back,” Lekhooana reflects.
His strong comeback has allowed Lekhooana to crack Lioli’s starting line-up over the past two months though he remains far from complacent.
Competition is relentless in a Lioli striking department that includes the likes of Cameroon-born striker Maba Junior, Lesotho internationals Tumelo Khutlang, and Lekhanya Lekhanya, as well as former Likhopo hit-man Thapelo Tale who joined the champions in August in a blockbuster move.
However, it is not just the physical or competitive aspect that has been a challenge for Lekhooana.

It is obvious when speaking with Lekhooana that the psychological part of his recovery was perhaps his greatest struggle. The pain of trying to get his leg to regain full strength was replaced with the fear of returning to the thick of the action as his progress hit the latter stages.
“It happens that you may be afraid of injuries and bad tackles when you come from a long injury. I was afraid in the beginning but as you continue to play more games, it disappears,” he says.

“During the game that thought may come around. After you make a tackle or you are tackled you think: ‘I have just come from injury and it could have been bad’.”
The support he has received from teammates, management, family and friends, therefore, has been crucial.
Lekhooana says they believed he would return to the pitch even when he felt like giving up.
“Their words motivated and helped me stay grounded and confident in myself,” he says.
Looking to make up for lost time, Lekhooana has – as any goal-poacher would do – set personal targets for this season.
He is aiming to dethrone Motebang Sera as the owner of the league’s golden boot. Last season the Matlama hitman claimed the award with 14 goals and although Lekhooana has two goals he isn’t giving up on topping the scoring charts.

Currently, Linare’s Nzenze Nkulu leads those charts with 11 goals.
“As a striker my job is to score goals,” Lekhooana emphasises. “I did not start the season in the starting line-up, there was someone else playing, but I took my chance when it came,” he adds.

“I want to score as many goals as possible and help my team win. I also want to help my teammates if they are in the better position to score than me.”
“If you look at my counterparts from other teams, they have scored quite few goals for themselves and I am still behind, so I want to make sure I score a lot of goals when I come back (for the second round in January).”

Those goals would be welcome. Lioli are facing a gruelling 2017.
In February, ‘Tse Nala’ start their CAF Champions League campaign in addition to defending both the league and Lesotho National Insurance Group Top 8 crowns at home. Lekhooana is looking forward to the challenge and adventure of playing in Africa after missing out on Lioli’s sojourn earlier this year.
And, there are high expectations for Lioli who will be making a third appearance in four years in the continental showpiece.
There are hopes ‘Tse Nala’ can become the first local side since Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) eliminated Botswana’s Mogoditshane Fighters in 2001 to win a Champions League tie.
A focused Lekhooana believes Lioli’s participation in Africa will not hurt their domestic form but, instead, will help the champions’ second half charge.
‘Tse Nala’, of course, trail Bantu by one point in the Vodacom Premier League and face a challenging task of retaining their title in a race that may also include Kick4Life, Lesotho Correctional Service and Lesotho Mounted Police Service.
“We have very good players,” Lekhooana insists, however.

“The president (Lebohang Thotanyana) has invested a lot in this team and I think participating in the Champions League won’t hurt our chances in the league. You will remember we have been there before and we came back and won the league. Instead, it helps us as we come back stronger and more clinical. We get lot of experience playing in Africa that we take advantage of here at home.”
Thankfully for Lioli, Lekhooana knows all about overcoming adversity and coming back stronger.

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Women rugby stars picked by Free State

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Two Lesotho women’s rugby stars, Thato Moeti and Mookho Lesoetsa, have been selected to the Free State senior team for the 2024 season.
The duo have been selected after their sterling performances for Lesotho in the on-going Free State Women’s Rugby League in South Africa and now Moeti and Lesoetsa can look forward to competing in the Cheetahs League, which marks a major step in their rugby careers.

Moeti told thepost yesterday that she is “very grateful for the opportunity” to be part of the Free State squad.

“It has always been my wish to be selected and, finally, I made it in the eyes of the Free State management,” Moeti said.

“I believe that if (Lesotho rugby) players can play with heart and spirit, and if they show their talent in the league, they can also be selected next season,” she added.

The management of the Free State women’s team scouted players from Lesotho to join in their squad last year as well.

12 months ago, it was Palesa Pitso, Mosongoa Monaheng and Nthabeleng Lebetsa who were picked, and they remain with the squad.

The selected players sign yearly contracts with the Free State team and Lesotho’s contingent at the club is now up to five.

The team manager of the national women’s rugby team, Tumelo Phenya, said Lesotho’s players seem to improve and “become very competitive” when they compete across the border because everyone wants the exposure and opportunity to compete outside the country.

He said being part of the Free State Women’s Rugby League allows Lesotho’s players to showcase their talent and opens doors for them to be selected for the Cheetahs League the following year.

“We are very lucky that South Africa recognises our players, especially because rugby in South Africa is at a high level. It shows progress for us as a country that we can produce players that can be competitive internationally,” Phenya said.

Phenya said he aims to see Lesotho compete at the Women’s Rugby Cup one day.
The showpiece is held every four years and the next tournament is next year in England.

Phenya said Pitso, Monaheng and Lebetsa, who have now gained experience and exposure outside the country, are excellent products to promote rugby in Lesotho.
Pitso also happens to be the team manager of the Lesotho men’s rugby side.

“When we go to schools with them, students fall into the sport because they want to be like them. Even Pitso’s title says a lot to students, they see growth in rugby,” he said.

Unfortunately, rugby, especially the women’s game, is hamstrung by a lack of finances and support.

As a result, Phenya said there are many tournaments and invitations Lesotho fails to honour because of no funds.

Phenya pleaded with Basotho and local companies to invest in their sport so that women’s rugby can grow and improve.

Lesotho is currently part of the Free State Women’s League that kicked off last month and will end early in May.

The national side played two games.

Lesotho beat Spartans 34-12 and lost 34-7 to Central University of Technology (CUT).

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Seema speaks on good run

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Lesotho legend Lehlohonolo Seema has spoken on Sekhukhune United’s impressive run in the DSTV Premiership since taking over the reins at the Polokwane-based outfit in December last year.
“Babina Noko”, as Sekhukhune are affectionately known, were in 12th place when its management appointed the former Likuena captain as its new coach last year, but the team has since ascended to third position.

Seema joined Sekhukhune from Polokwane City, who were then in sixth position but now find themselves in 10th position since the Lesotho mentor left them for their rivals from the same province.
Speaking exclusively to thepost following a run of five victories which includes a 2-1 win over former club Orlando Pirates and Tuesday’s 2-2 draw against Cape Town City, Seema attributed the impressive run to the hard work his team has been putting on the training ground.

“I’m not surprised by the way the players responded to my way of doing things since I took over the reins. On beating Pirates, it’s not even about Pirates, it’s all about collecting points,” Seema said.
“Beating a big side is always a bonus and giving yourself a chance to finish in a better position. There was nothing personal, but we are taking it one game at a time. We are happy as a club to collect the three points because competition is tight, and the margins are very close, and we just want to collect as many points as possible.

“Remember this team was playing in the Confederations Cup though it was not doing well in the league, but they have shown that they won games in the continent in countries like DRC to have made the group stages of the continental competition,” he said.

Seema believes being together in their camp has also worked wonders for his team to be the most inform team in the DSTV Premiership at this juncture.
They are now in third position behind defending champions Mamelodi Sundowns as well as another surprise package in Stellenbosch FC.

“There is no secret honestly in the form that we have been enjoying as a club, but just hard work on the training pitch, having a common goal, respecting each other, and listening to each other,” Seema said.

“We have remained humble on and off the field as a team, we have made it easy for players to work with us by asking questions on the training ground and we give them answers to come up with solutions for problems that we have as a team.

“Credit must go to the whole technical team, the analysts, fitness team, medical team because since I arrived here, we have had a very tough schedule and we don’t have a big squad, but they have managed it very well.

“The analysis team has been doing a magnificent job giving us everything we need on time to plan on our team as well as the opponents and our team has coped with all the challenges thrown at us,” he said.

Seema also opened up on Lesotho international, Teboho Letsema, who was registered by Sekhukhune in the January transfer window.

“Letsema is our player, we have signed him but could not register him because we already had five foreigners but because we could not miss out on such a talent, we had to get his signature,” Seema said.

“We managed to loan him out to Orbit, who are in the Motsepe Championship and competing. It’s good for him and he is a player to watch next season,” he said.

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Lioli captain says job not done yet

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Lioli captain Mafa Moremoholo insists the job “is not done” in the race to claim the Vodacom Premier League crown.

Last weekend was a game-changer in the title chase and Lioli are now firmly in the driver’s seat to lift the league trophy after results went their way in dramatic fashion.

The drama started last Saturday when recently crowned People’s Cup champions Matlama were stunned 3-0 by Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS).

24 hours later, Lifofane held fellow title rivals Bantu to a surprise 1-1 draw and the weekend ended with Lioli five points clear at the top of the table after ‘Tse Nala’ overcame Liphakoe 1-0.

Although Lioli, with 56 points from 24 matches, have played a game more than Matlama (51 points) and Bantu (49 points), points in hand are better than those still to gain.

Furthermore, if Lioli win their remaining six matches, they will be crowned champions regardless of other results and that has uncorked joy in Teyateyaneng (TY) with some fans already planning festivities for when Lioli end their eight-year title drought.

List of champions since 2010:
2010 Matlama
2011 Lesotho Correctional Service
2012 Lesotho Correctional Service
2013 Lioli
2014 Bantu
2015 Lioli
2016 Lioli
2017 Bantu
2018 Bantu
2019 Matlama
2020 Bantu
2021-22 Matlama
2023 Bantu

Moremoholo however warned against any premature celebrations and insisted Lioli have not reached the levels the club’s players and coaches want to attain.
The stalwart defender said the gap the TY giants have established at the top means nothing because they still have six crucial games to play.

“As for being the champions of the league, I cannot comment on that because we are on a serious journey,” he said. “The title can be missed by an inch, so we do not want to praise ourselves now.”

Moremoholo pointed out that the league’s intensity has picked up in the second half of the season, and even though Lioli won 1-0 on Sunday, Liphakoe’s performance surprised him.
It was night and day from the first round clash in November when Lioli won 2-1, he said, this time Liphakoe were prepared and ready to fight.

It is going to be that way in every game for the remainder of the season because all teams want to improve their league position, Moremoholo added.

“Our games with Liphakoe are never easy because we have our own fight over our (similar) logos. We are birds of the same feather,” he said. “They approached us in a different way from the first leg, which surprised me. They gave us pressure and we had to fight. We still need to improve how we approach our games.”

As one of the leaders of the team, a lot of that responsibility will fall on Moremoholo.

So far, the skipper has led with aplomb and has been the epitome of consistency while marshalling a defence that has conceded just 13 goals in 24 games. Only LMPS (11 goals conceded in 24 games) have a better defensive record.

Moremoholo’s leadership has duly been recognised around the league and ‘Tse Nala’ coach Motheo Mohapi called him Lioli’s best player after their win over Liphakoe.
Mohapi said the defender’s efforts as captain and his willingness to work to lift his team has been key to their success.
Moremoholo preferred to praise his teammates, though.

“It is through the hard work of the team for someone to be recognised. I really appreciate my teammates for setting the spotlight on me to be recognised (by Mohapi),” he said.

The Lioli skipper added that the club’s targets extend beyond this season – they want to see ‘Tse Nala’ recognised in continental competitions in the next two to three years, and their focus is not on just winning the league.

For them to become a competitive fixture in CAF competitions, Lioli will need to continue their noticeable improvement under Mohapi.

Last season they finished eighth place in the league with 42 points, 26 points behind eventual champions Bantu. Lioli have already shattered that points total in Mohapi’s first season in charge and Moremoholo believes there is more room to grow.

He said the core of Lioli’s players are still young which gives them a chance to improve and reach their goal of future dominance while the presence of Mohapi as coach is another reason Moremoholo sees a bright future for the team.

“Most of our players are still young, they are early in their 20s, and they will hold the team for some years while they gain experience. I also appreciate (Mohapi) for being part of our team and holding our hands to return the dignity of the team,” he said.

The club’s collective efforts have manifested the return of Lioli fans to grounds this season and that vociferous 12th man, which was key to Lioli’s successful title-winning teams in the past, will again be crucial in their next game on Sunday against Lijabatho.

“Seeing supporters at our games lift our spirits and it gives us hope to win every game,” Moremoholo said.

“(The Lioli fans) should never give up on us because through their presence, we get motivated.”

Weekend fixtures:
Saturday
Bantu vs Liphakoe
Manonyane vs Likila
Lifofane vs CCX
Lijabatho vs Lioli
Sunday
Machokha vs LDF
Naughty Boys vs Matlama
LMPS vs Linare
ACE Maseru vs LCS

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