BY MICHAEL KARIATI
It’s done, and dusted.
The Warriors of Zimbabwe are on their way to the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) finals following a campaign that will remain forever on the lips of many.
Zimbabweans will look back with pride after the Afcon qualification was secured with one game to spare and for that matter without some of the country’s top stars who were locked out in Europe due to Covid-19.
Now safely on eight points, the remaining game against Zambia is now academic as the Chipolopolo will only finish on seven points should they overcome Zimbabwe, while Botswana too will also end up on seven should they beat Algeria.
Surely, comparisons between the old and the new will always be drawn, but never in their previous successful Afcon campaigns were the Warriors as efficient as they have been this time around.
They went to Lusaka and picked up three points with a 2-1 win, travelled to Francistown and collected three points with a 1-0 victory and a team that does that demands the respect of all.
Their coach Croatian Zdravko Logarusic will also go down in history as the first foreigner to lead the Warriors to Afcon after a host of others from Scotland, Switzerland, Ghana, Poland, Brazil and Germany got their chance and failed.
The foreign coaches came to Zimbabwe with lots of promises, received huge pay cheques, but failed to deliver the goods leaving locals Sunday Chidzambwa in 2004 and 2019, Charles Mhlauri in 2006 and Kalisto Pasuwa in 2017, to steer Zimbabwe to the promised land.
Although comical at times, Logarusic has proved different. Even the critics who never believed in him are dancing to another tune and are singing praises of the Croat after the Warriors opened a huge gap of four points between them and their closest rivals Botswana and Zambia.
In addition, the Zimbabwe team also reduced Algeria’s lead at the top to just three points from five points with only one round of matches remaining.
Logarusic is obviously happy with his newly-found hero status after receiving a barrage of criticism when the Warriors crashed out of the Chan tournament without a single point.
He also stares history in the face of becoming the first Warriors coach since 1980 to lead Zimbabwe out of the group stages of the Afcon finals.
In all their appearances in 2004, 2006, 2017 and 2019, Zimbabwe has crashed out at the first hurdle, and the last time, they picked up only one point from three matches.
To his credit, Zifa president Felton Kamambo too can now walk tall in the streets as his decision to appoint Logarusic out of the 13 applicants for the job has yielded the required results.
When his term expires in December 2022, Kamambo will raise his hand high and say: “During my tenure Zimbabwe qualified for Afcon 2021.”
However, Zimbabweans should also not forget the role that Joey Antipas also played in this success story as his team also collected four of the eight points that Zimbabwe amassed in total.
As we celebrate a fifth appearance at Afcon and a third in succession, let us not forget that this is just a battle that has been won, but the war is still far from over.
There are the Afcon finals themselves as well as the 2022 World Cup qualifiers in which the Warriors are in the same group with Ghana, Ethiopia and South Africa.
Fine, the Warriors have been efficient, but there is always room for improvement. Logarusic needs serious warm-up or friendly matches against opponents of good standing in African football as a build-up for Afcon and the World Cup.
Caf have lined up their calendar along that of Europe and Zimbabwe will not have any problems in getting their players released by their European clubs should they be needed for friendlies.
Zifa are advised this time around to look elsewhere for other friendly match opponents and abandon the system of always looking at Zambia whenever the Fifa date for international friendly matches arrives.
South Africa too might not agree to a Warriors friendly as they will also play Zimbabwe in the 2022 World Cup in a group from where one team progresses.
It is not good for Zifa to do things at the last minute, and the football federation should — right now — start negotiations with potential friendly match opponents so that when the time comes, everything would be in place.
Surely getting the likes of Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Senegal, Egypt and Morocco to bring their best players to Zimbabwe will not be easy, but there are the likes of Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, Kenya, Uganda, Congo, and the DRC, who can provide meaningful challenges in the Warriors’ build-up.
Some might see qualifying for the World Cup as impossible but the football record books show that outsiders like Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Kuwait, Honduras, Togo and Angola have made it to the global football festival — and the Warriors can also do it.
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