As the 2017 CAF Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) comes to a conclusion this weekend, the modest nation of Swaziland may still be wondering what might have been. Sihlangu came agonisingly close to qualifying for their first-ever AFCON – which would have doubled as their first major tournament – but were pipped to a place at Gabon 2017 by fellow southern Africa country Zimbabwe in Group L of the preliminaries.

Despite narrowly missing out on a dream place at the continental showpiece, the minnows will take heart from their spirited efforts in 2016, during which they rose from 133rd spot at the beginning of the year to 99th in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking – their highest-ever position. It’s a far cry from 2013, when Swazi football seemed to have sunk to its lowest ebb, with the team languishing in 186th place at the depths of the Ranking, having suffered a humiliating 10-0 loss at the hands of Egypt – the country’s largest-ever defeat.

"It was a very proud moment for us and we hope to keep on working hard and improving as a team," said defender Siyabonga Mdluli, reflecting on Swaziland’s Ranking rise. "We’ve shown a lot of determination and with the players that the Swazi national team have currently, we can really challenge and, hopefully, qualify for the next AFCON.

"We were very close to reaching Gabon 2017, but perhaps a lack of experience cost us. The team have been putting in a lot of hard work and we have to keep working hard for each other. When one person makes a mistake, we all make a mistake – it’s a team effort."

A year to remember
Under the guidance of Harries Bulunga – a teacher by trade who left his role as Swaziland manager at the end of September – Sihlangu recorded stunning home and away victories against AFCON qualifying Group L top seeds Guinea, which left them daring to dream about a place at Gabon. And while it wasn’t to be for the underdogs in the end, draws against Zimbabwe and Malawi, as well as the Guinea victories, helped fuel Swaziland’s steady Ranking rise – and forge a new sense of optimism among the squad.

That belief was demonstrated in the COSAFA Cup, a competition comprised of teams from southern Africa, where Swaziland proved a thorn in the side of the traditional powerhouses, storming to a bronze-medal victory and matching their best-ever finish at the tournament.

"We had mixed feelings in the end at the COSAFA Cup,” said 30-year-old Mdluli. "Part of us was happy to achieve third place but, at the same time, we were also quite disappointed as our target had been to reach the final."

Exports and plans for the future
It was also at the COSAFA Cup that Swaziland forward Felix Badenhorst, one of the stars of the national team, caught the eye of many African clubs with his keen eye for goal, eventually finishing as the tournament’s top scorer. While the vast majority of Swazi players ply their trade in their homeland, Badenhorst broke the mold by joining compatriot Mthunzi ‘Xavi’ Mkhontfo in moving to Congo DR giants AS Vita after impressing at the competition.      

Tough-tackling defender Mdluli, the captain of Swazi Premier League side Green Mamba, hopes to see more of his compatriots test themselves abroad in future. “Most of our team is made up of Swazi-based players, so it’s a boost for us that they [Badenhorst and Mkhontfo] are playing abroad,” Mdluli said. “We would like to see more of our internationals playing outside of Swaziland, it would be good for our national team.”

Mdluli, along with the rest of the Swazi team, can take inspiration from their impressive showing in Gabon 2017 qualifying as the preliminaries begin for Cameroon 2019 in June of this year. Boasting a nice blend of experience and youth, Sihlangu face a daunting task having been pitted against Tunisia, Egypt and Niger. However, as the spirited minnows’ recent showings have demonstrated, they should not be taken lightly by the traditional powerhouses.

Swaziland FA Chief Executive Officer Frederick Mngomezulu said: "We know what our opponents are capable of. We have faced Egypt before, Tunisia is also a powerhouse and Niger once beat South Africa in the qualifying stage in 2012, but one needs to swim with the big sharks to develop in the sport.”

While they may appear to be a small fish in comparison to those big sharks, Swaziland are certainly headed in the right direction.