TWELVE years ago when Zimbabwe made its Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) debut in Tunisia, it almost certainly marked the last time the national football side, the Warriors, were remotely close to reasonable international standards.
By Enock Muchinjo
Talent and ability aside, what was most heartening to see was the special bond that seemed to exist between the team and its fans.
The players endeared themselves with the fans chiefly due to a strong sense of obligation and duty and as a result, success, rare as it was, was shared by the supporters, and effort in defeat acknowledged. The fans loved the players. The players returned the love, and yearned to make the fans happy and proud.
Like true Warriors, the class of 2004 squeezed every last ounce of potential out of themselves, refusing to give up even when the opposition was clearly superior and defeat was inevitable.
There couldn’t possibly be a better example of such an admirable fighting spirit than at Afcon 2004, the ever courageous captain Peter Ndlovu daring to give his unfancied troops the lead against defending champions Cameroon, as he had also previously done three days earlier in the Group C opener with Egypt.
A gusty performance it was; the Warriors trailing Cameroon 3-2 very late in the second half, the Indomitable Lions restoring a comfortable lead at 5-2, and then Esrom Nyandoro firing an absolute thunderbolt past Cameroon’s world-class goalkeeper Idriss Carlos Kameni – a stunning right-foot drive voted as one of the best goals of the tournament – as Zimbabwe bowed out extremely proud of themselves with three goals as well as an impressive show against the tournament holders.
And then came the dead-rubber against Algeria, and with pressure off, we witnessed the Warriors produce the stuff we always knew that group of players to be capable of, prevailing 2-1 with two well-taken goals by the late Adam Ndlovu and Joel Lupahla after a display of free-flowing attacking football.
It was a decent all-round tournament display, especially looking back now in retrospect, by a very special ground of players: Peter Ndlovu, the legendary Warriors skipper who delivered the goods for his country time and time again, splendidly shouldering the responsibility of being both leader and the team’s talisman, and a man who held an even more special place in the hearts of the nation because he shone often without much of a team around him.
Ronald “Gidiza” Sibanda – a gifted playmaker whose flair and trickery was never more sublime than in that Algeria game. Gidiza belongs to a rare breed of Zimbabwean footballers, a man whose creative talents are now better appreciated in retirement because his position, the midfielder who dictates the attacking flow of the game from an advanced position behind the forwards, has not been ably filled ever since he left the scene.
Tinashe Nengomasha – a tenacious midfield enforcer who broke up the opposition’s play with aplomb, provided a wall-like shield for the defence and also held the ball well, distributed and attacked whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Adam Ndlovu and Agent Sawu – two similar old-fashioned traditional centre-forwards with audacity, strength and sudden burst of pace for men their sheer size, the archetypal number nine with a keen eye for goal. Underrated and humble, Adam and Sawu happily and modestly delivered for their country, and if centre forwards are defined by the number of goals that they score in their international careers, then these two most certainly merit the sort of recognition afforded to those better known strikers who have represented their countries with distinction.
Joel Lupahla – a rookie whose inclusion in the touring party had been a subject of much debate, but went on to dazzle at the tournament with his lighting pace, trickery and intent down the wing.
A few more deserve special mention. But it is probably fair to simply acknowledge the entire team, so we shall leave it there.
Let’s just say that was a special team, an exceptional group of blokes who wore their hearts on their sleeves, gave their all, and, the last Warriors team to have an intimate relationship with its fans.
And then as the Warriors have lurched from one record low to another over the years, that intimate relationship, that trust between the fans and their team, has been lost.
While the Warriors did return to the Afcon in Egypt in 2006, the team had lost form and shape, and was overpowered and outplayed in all three pool games.
What followed has even been more tragic and depressing for Zimbabwean football fans. On top of seeing the fans turn their backs on them, the Warriors have become a subject of ridicule, the sort of disparaging remarks that come not out of pleasure of pouring scorn on their own team, but out of disappointment and frustration. Long periods of failure, such as the Warriors’, breed mistrust, and mistrust breeds lack of loyalty, and paranoia.
Such has been the case between Zimbabwean football fans and their team.
Everyone is constantly uncertain and questioning performances, even on the odd occasion it has been worth of praise, like last Sunday when the Warriors pummeled Swaziland 4-0 to be within touching distance of qualification for Gabon 2017 from Group L.
Because of the Warriors’ sustained period of mediocrity that has bred such high levels of mistrust, it is not surprising to see that convincing win over the Swazis, long-time minnows of African football, being dismissed within the circles of the Warriors’ most rigid critics, whose trust has seemingly been damaged beyond repair, as a celebration of mediocrity.
All well and good. The Warriors have been horrible for far too long. The wave of cynicism is totally understandable.
But in their slightly blinded rigidness, the team’s stanch critics seem to have lost sight of something. Special footballers and special teams like the one of 2004 are a once-in-a-generation gift to any nation. The present Warriors group has the makings of a special team, one fans can rekindle their romance with.
And there are already parallels between past and present; where there was Sunday Chidzambwa in 2004, a revered local coach who had won everything the Zimbabwean domestic football scene has to offer, now there is Calisto Pasuwa.
Where it was Energy Murambadoro, a very good young goalkeeper then expected to be around for a very long time and on whom the team could lay a solid foundation from the back, now there is Tatenda Mukuruva.
Where there was the industry and combativeness of Kaizer Chiefs starman Nengomasha in the crucial holding midfield role, now there is Willard Katsande, interestingly also a grafter for the same South African club.
Where there was a lynchpin called Peter Ndlovu, who was ever reliable in the green and gold of the Warriors and who could score goals when they were so badly needed, now there is Knowledge Musona. Quite striking similarities, but I will dare go as far as saying the current squad has potential to be considerably ahead than the group of 2004.
Three of the most outstanding players in the Swaziland game, Costa Nhamoinesu, Marvelous Nakamba and Knowledge Musona currently have key roles at clubs in respectable European top-flight leagues.
And then in Katsande and Khama Billiat, we have probably the best players in their positions in the South African league.
Throw in others who can also be considered for selection in future, such as the in-form Tendai Ndoro, then Zimbabwe can claim to have its best generation of footballers in more than a decade. A golden generation Zimbabwe can invest hope in.