FC Likhopo v Mphatlalatsane, Saturday 27th September 2014, 3pm

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We’ve lived in South Africa for a year now, but some of the people who I work with have been here for a lot longer. One of the things that I’ll occasionally ask them is “What’s the best place that you’ve been to whilst you’ve been in Africa?”

As you might expect, there’s a variety of answers, with some of the more miserable gits amongst them mentioning Johannesburg Airport for their flights home. For those that get about a bit, Victoria Falls is a popular choice. That’s not surprising I suppose. Jen and I visited the Zambian side of it at New Year and it was pretty good. Better than High Force, but not as spectacular as I remembered Niagara to be. We’ll take a look from the Zimbabwean side next time and see if the view from that angle earns it extra points.

It was quite wet close up.

It was quite wet close up.

Another fella reckoned Hermanus in the Western Cape was the place to go. Its big selling point is whale watching. They even have festivals for it, although to the likely disappointment of any Japanese or Korean visitors you aren’t allowed to eat the whales.

Hermanus was an enjoyable visit too, although I don’t really think that spotting a whale’s arse a couple of hundred yards out to sea necessarily added much to a spectacular cliff top walk.

Whale arse.

Whale arse.

Mind you, I did get to drive a 1967 MG on the Hermanus trip and that made it a pretty good weekend regardless of what the whales got up to or whether you could have them for your tea.

That took me back a few years.

That took me back a few years.

One place that often gets a mention in people’s favourites is Sani Pass. It’s a steep and exposed winding track that takes you from the Drakensberg mountains into the landlocked country of Lesotho. From the way people go on about it, you’d think that it was virtually impossible to drive the route without either falling off the edge or wrecking your car engine.

In fact, driving up Sani Pass turned out to be a doddle, to the extent that I didn’t even have to shift from automatic to manual. I’ve had more trouble being stuck behind a caravan on Sutton Bank.

Looking back down Sani Pass

Looking back down Sani Pass

We stopped at the top for breakfast in a place that describes itself as ‘Africa’s Highest Pub’. I’ve no idea as to whether they are telling the truth or not, but all it would take for some place else to snatch the title would be for someone to build a new bar twenty yards away on the higher ground all around it.

Pint of Magnet please.

Pint of Magnet please.

We had three days spare and so didn’t have to turn around and go back down Sani Pass. Instead we drove through northern Lesotho, mainly on roads that looked to have been maintained by someone who did nothing more than scatter rocks on them.

The scenery was fantastic. I don’t think any part of Lesotho is below two thousand metres and it was just mountain after mountain. We were headed for a lodge near Butha Buthe and spent five hours driving through a part of the country that must have barely changed in fifty years.

I could live there.

I could live there.

The houses were mainly small and circular with thatched roofs, whilst the people tended to wear blankets rather than coats. The few people that we did see with a coat on looked as if they were struggling with the idea of wearing it properly, preferring instead to wrap it around themselves as if they wished that they still had a blanket.

Herding livestock seemed a popular activity for all ages. Old blokes sat and watched flocks of sheep whilst some kids as young as four or five had sole responsibility for a cow.

Donkeys and bushes.

Donkeys and bushes.

As we approached Butha Buthe, some of the houses were of the more modern design of a square shape and a tin roof. There were fewer blankets too. The people were just as friendly though, waving at us as if a passing car was a novelty, similar I suppose to how it must have been in Loftus in the nineteen eighties.

A couple of nights at a lodge gave us the opportunity to see some of the mountains close up on foot and we spent a few hours on the day before the game hiking a circular route that took us from 2000m to 2600m before dropping sharply down again.

Halfway up.

Halfway up.

Whilst the views were stunning, it would have been even better if we could have walked  when the rivers were in full flow to get maximum benefit from the waterfalls. The highlight of the day came on the way down as we passed a couple of donkeys and their owners making their way up.

On the way down.

On the way down.

On Saturday morning we drove the couple of hours into capital city Maseru. I’d been a little wary about this part of the trip as there had been an attempted military coup just three weeks before that had seen the army using their bigger guns to confiscate the smaller ones of the police. The Prime Minister legged it over the border to South Africa until things quietened down a bit. It all seemed calm enough when we got there though.

There were three matches listed as taking place that day and as luck would have it our hotel was only a mile or so from the Lesotho Correctional Service Stadium that was hosting the Premier League tie between FC Likhopo and Mphatlalatsane.

Maybe it's prisoners v warders next week.

Maybe it’s prisoners v warders next week.

We had a chat on the way in with a fella who told us that he was Likhopo’s manager. That might very well have been true, but as he spent the entire game greeting arrivals at the gate his role was somewhat different to most football managers.

He told us that despite three defeats out of four and being second bottom he fancied his team for the win. I suppose he had to say that. He also mentioned that fourteen of the sixteen teams in the Lesotho Premier League were based in Maseru. Ideal for derbies.

The view from behind the goal.

The view from behind the goal.

It was free to get in, although with no seats or terracing it wasn’t quite the bargain that you might think. The pitch was bordered on three sides by a grassy bank and so Jen and I sat ourselves down behind the goal.

For the second game running we had the benefits of a FIFA official, two in fact, with the ref and one of the linos sporting the 2014 FIFA badge. I wonder if each country has a quota as the ref didn’t look to be of the standard that you’d want at international level. I can’t imagine Howard Webb turning a blind eye to players having a pre-match piss next to one of the corner flags.

More view from behind the goal.

More view from behind the goal.

Likhopo were in red, with Mphatlalatsane wearing green shirts and yellow shorts. Both sides adapted pretty well to the uneven pitch, although if they had grown up playing on the roads that we’d driven on from Sani Pass, it must have seemed like Wembley to them.

Free kick to

Free kick to Mphatlalatsane

Dust flew up with every kick and with a fire burning away in the fields to our right I wondered how often the pitch failed to survive the dry season. Mind you, with all the mountains in Lesotho, once the rain starts I’d imagine the pitches very quickly change from dustbowls to quagmires.

Jen and I had the area between the goal and the corner flag to ourselves, with the rest of the eighty or so crowd dotted around the pitch in small groups. A few had brought plastic chairs but most just stood or sat on the grass. I’d have thought that with free admission there might have been more people there but I suspect most football fans in Maseru would rather watch the English Premier League on the telly than their own Premier League live.

Fans in the corner

Fans in the corner

Half-time came without any goals. There wasn’t a dressing room so the teams loitered by their benches whilst the officials stood around one of their cars. After another dash by some of the players to the corner flag for a slash, we got back underway.

Mphatlatlatsane broke the deadlock midway through the second half. The ball had been pinging around the Likhopo box when it struck a defender’s hand. I didn’t think there was much that he could have done about it, but who am I to question a FIFA ref?

The dust upon which the penalty spot had been marked must have blown away and the ref was forced to pace out the distance from the goal-line before placing the ball for the spot kick. It was just like the way we used to do it as kids, although without the farce of the attacker initially trying to measure the distance with tiny ballet dancer steps only to have to contend with the keeper attempting to make his stab at measuring twelve steps stretch halfway to the shops.

Likhopo goalmouth.

Likhopo goalmouth.

The Mphatlatlatsane penalty taker wasn’t fazed by the lack of a spot and blammed the ball home to the keepers left. The prospect of a fourth defeat on the trot was just what Likhopo needed to spur them on though and they pressed forward with a lot more purpose.

As the game entered its final few minutes a lofted ball into the Mphatlatlatsane box was glanced home to the delight of the home crowd. Two minutes later the turnaround was completed when Likhopo got their second goal of the afternoon. A shot from the edge of the box was parried by the visiting keeper and a fella who had blazed wide from close range a few minutes earlier showed a little more composure this time to tuck the rebound away.

The Mphatlalatsane bench.

The Mphatlalatsane bench.

Likhopo held on for their first win of the season and we cleared off back to our hotel where both the army and the police kept popping in to take advantage of the buffet in the restaurant. Maybe their earlier spat had been over someone eating all the ribs.

The next day we crossed the border at Maseru and drove back up to Gauteng. Whilst I didn’t think Sani Pass was all it’s cracked up to be, Lesotho went far beyond my expectations, particularly the area to the east of Butha Buthe. Should anyone ever ask me which is the best place that we’ve been to so far, then I’d say Lesotho. I’d like to think that we’ll be back there before long.

 

 

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