Inside sport with MICHAEL KARIATI
Zimbabwe football followers are thanking their lucky stars after their favourite team, the Warriors, were drawn in what looks like a fair Group A against seven-time champions Egypt, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.
Although there are no longer any easy rides in African football, and that the ball can roll anywhere, this group looks like one that the Warriors can easily and successfully negotiate their way through with the Pharaohs of Egypt being probably their strongest opponents.
Interestingly — over the years — the Warriors have always blamed the cruelty of the draw for their early elimination from the finals, after in 2004, they were placed in the same group with African football heavyweights Algeria, Cameroon and Egypt, and bowed out in the first round.
Two years later, in Egypt, the draw was no kinder for the Warriors after Charles Mhlauri’s class found themselves facing the likes of Ghana, Senegal and Nigeria, and were eliminated before the real competition had started.
As if that was not enough, Kalisto Pasuwa’s group of 2017 in Gabon found themselves facing Riyad Mahrez’s Algeria, Sadio Mane’s Senegal, as well as the Carthage Eagles of Tunisia, and went out of the tournament after picking up only one point from three matches.
This time around, the draw has been fair and with the chances of three teams from the group making it to the second round, the Warriors will have no one to blame, but themselves should they fail to negotiate their way through a group that does not have Africa’s top teams Senegal, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Ivory Coast.
The Warriors, though, are not intimidated by the opposition, but are equally aware that the stakes will be higher with Egypt as the hosts and playing in front of their fanatical fans. The telling omen, however, is that the Warriors have always played well and their best against the Pharaohs and a draw in their opening game on June 21 will set the tone for the remainder of their campaign.
Critics, however, are of the opinion that the Warriors’ best chance of qualifying does not lie with Egypt, but hinges on their other two matches against the Cranes and the Simbas. The two teams suit the Warriors’ style of play well and the Zimbabweans can also claim to have history on their side, after beating the Simbas 2-1 right in their own stadium in Kinshasa.
In fact, the Simbas were lucky to even come out with a point from Harare after Zimbabwe missed too many chances and were without their most influential player, captain Knowledge Musona, who was out suspended.
As for the Cranes of Uganda, although they have made six appearances at the Nations Cup, they do not have anything to show for that with their best performances coming way back in 1962 and 1978 when they were runners-up. More importantly is the fact that since 1980, the Cranes have qualified only once for the Nations Cup — in 2017 — while the Warriors have over the same period qualified on three occasions.
Surprisingly, Uganda coach Sebastien Desabre had the guts to say the Warriors are the biblical Daniel, who this time around, will be eaten up in the “Lion’s Den” of Group A and spat right out of the tournament.
His belief, however, appears to be premised not on current form, but on the Warriors’ history and the controversial Fifa rankings, which put the DRC in 46th place ahead of all teams, Egypt, who are in 57th. position. Uganda are way ahead of Zimbabwe in 79th place while the Warriors are in 110th position.
Ironically, Desabre is backed by former Nigeria star Victor Ikpeba, now a television football analyst, who too believes the Warriors will be the whipping boys of the group, and says the Zimbabweans have no chance of progressing at all.
Surprisingly, Ikpeba himself is happy that Nigeria have been drawn in a “weak” group comprising of Guinea, Burundi, and Madagascar, meaning he is well aware of how his own once mighty Super Eagles have fallen, but does not take his time to see how the Zimbabwean star has risen.
What is for sure, however, is that the Warriors are going there to Egypt not to make up the numbers, but to make history. Chidzambwa’s group of players know that this is their time to leave a mark to be remembered for some time as they are not guaranteed of their places in the 2021 Nations Cup and 2022 World Cup qualifiers.
Chidzambwa himself also has a personal agenda at the Nations Cup finals. He has been given the task of leading the Warriors up to the quarter-finals or risk losing his job. Mhofu knows what being unemployed in Zimbabwe means, and will use the knowledge and experience garnered along the way to take the Warriors to the Promised Land.
Critics have always accused Chidzambwa of being ultra-defensive, but proof of his refined approach has been there for everyone to see especially in the results of his team — in the qualifying stages.
However, the Nations Cup finals is the real deal and what he will do in Egypt will be judged against what he has already done.
All that success in the Cosafa Cup, and all that success at Dynamos and all that he has done for the Warriors will count for nothing should his team suffer humiliation against lightweights like the DRC and Uganda in Egypt.
With most of southern Africa’s Nations Cup sides likely to field their best teams for the Cosafa Cup that runs from May 25 to June 8, South Africa, Namibia, Angola, Madagascar, and even Zambia will give the Warriors the sort of preparations they need for the Nations Cup.
Surely, after the agony of early elimination in 2004, 2006, and 2012, perhaps the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations will bring a new dawn of success for the Warriors and Zimbabwean football as a whole — everyone in the country agrees that only a quarter-final place or even further ahead will do justice to the talent at the Warriors’ disposal.
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