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The 2019 AFCON nightmare: Consumed by chaos, the Warriors crashed




The 2019 AFCON nightmare: Consumed by chaos, the Warriors crashed. The Cinderella scriptwriters, the lightweights who were going to punch above their weight and provide the fireworks on their return to the land of the Pharaohs.

This time, last year, the Warriors were in bullish mood, walking with a spring in their step, and telling the world they wanted to be the Ajax Amsterdam of the 2019 AFCON finals. The mission to complete the unfinished business of 2006 when, after shocking a powerful World Cup-bound Ghana’s Black Stars 2-1 on the same Egyptian soil, they tantalisingly came to making the quarter-finals of the tournament.

That night in Ismailia when Joel Luphahla tapped the ball home on the blindside, for what would have been the decisive third goal, enough to take the Warriors into the last eight of the tournament.

However, a linesman’s flag cut short their wild celebrations and, shattered by the lost chance, and a sense of injustice, they conceded a goal, in time added on, for a winning margin that wasn’t enough to take them through.

Instead, Senegal, with as many points as the Warriors, went through on better goal difference, the closest the Zimbabweans have come to reaching the knockout stage of the AFCON finals. Had Luphahla’s goal stood, and they had not conceded with the last kick of the game, they would have been the ones in the quarter-finals?

“We are very disappointed, we could have qualified but we were unlucky,” said the then Warriors coach, Charles Mhlauri. “We tried to score the third goal, the referee disallowed one and if we had been on the scoreboard I don’t think they would have scored and we would have gone through.”

Now, they were back and the message from their camp was that they would make up for the heartbreak of their last visit when their country’s dreams were dashed in controversial fashion.

There was a reason for optimism. They had gone to Kinshasa and tamed the Leopards of the DRC in a 2-1 victory that vibrated across the continent during the qualifiers. They had gone to Brazzaville and, on one of the worst pitches in African football, settled for a 1-1 draw.

In the reverse fixture in Harare, the gulf in class between them and the Congolese Red Devils was clear for everyone to see. And, goals by influential skipper Knowledge Musona and Khama Billiat powered them to the AFCON finals.

“I don’t think there will be many teams fancying a group meeting with these Warriors,’’ said veteran South African commentator, Mark Gleeson, as he covered the team’s 2-0 win over Congo-Brazzaville.

And, in the Warriors camp, confidence was exploding. “We have a good team with good quality, and we are working hard to correct the mistakes from the last tournament,” Musona said.

“Zimbabwe are the only underdog in the group, but that in itself should give us the motivation to say we are the Ajax Amsterdam of the Nations Cup.’’

The Dutch side were the toast of world football after their predominantly young side swept aside Real Madrid and Juventus and only came within a minute of edging Tottenham to reach the final of the UEFA Champions League last year.

Their tale was inspiring millions of lightweights, including the Warriors, who appeared desperate to make their mark, among the game’s heavyweights, and show the world they had finally come of age.

Billiat, whose impressive performance in his first AFCON finals game against Algeria in Gabon, two years earlier, had captured the imagination of many pundits, including Ghanaian legend Sammy Kuffour, was back at the continental football showcase.

With three goals in the qualifiers, Billiat appeared primed to explode in Egypt, operating in tandem with the skipper, Musona, in spearheading the team’s attack.

The midfield also had a gem, Marvelous Nakamba, who was being courted by some leading clubs in Europe while the defence appeared solid during the campaign with both Tendai Darikwa and Alec Mudimu proving useful additions.

Then, on June 21, last year, the Warriors had their first major test when they took on the Pharaohs of Egypt in their Cairo International Stadium cauldron before 80 000 fans.

A workmanlike performance, in which they gave as much as they got with left-back, Divine Lunga doing an impressive job in man-marking the dangerous Mohammed Salah, and goalkeeper Eddie Sibanda having a blinder, saw them going down 0-1. However, from there onwards, the Warriors’ train veered off the tracks and what had started as a promising adventure in Cairo, quickly turned into a nightmare.

Players, unhappy their welfare was not being given priority as ZIFA struggled to meet the huge costs of the operation, including huge appearance fees and allowances which the two parties had settled for before the flight from home, started taking the association head on.

Rather than concentrate on their mission, the Warriors found themselves spending a lot of time in a series of meetings with representatives of the association, with the players demanding they either be paid their dues or they would not fulfil the remainder of the matches.

Their camp became an enclave of negative energy and it quickly became clear the focus of the players, which is crucial in such high-intensity tournaments, had been badly affected and the team would not realise their potential.

They should have won their next match against Uganda, had their skipper not missed a gilt-edged chance, in the 1-1 draw before all the negativity, which had been swirling in their camp, finally caught up with them in a pathetic show as they crashed to a 0-4 humiliation at the hands of the DRC.

With three teams from their group, with a chance to make the knockout stage of the tournament, the Warriors found themselves being the only one whose campaign ended at the group stage. And, for the record, it became the worst AFCON finals adventure in this country’s history.

Nakamba played only one match, the opener against the Pharaohs before an injury knocked him out of the tournament while reports of an altercation, between two players, after a training ground burst-up, didn’t help matters.

This week last year, everything appeared on course for the Warriors.

Then, in an instant, the light which had been illuminating their camp, was blown away by the chaos that followed and the limping Warriors faded badly and were a caricature of the team, which had dazzled opponents in the qualifiers, by the time their poor campaign came to a fitting sorry end.

They had let down their fans, let down themselves and let down those, like Gleeson, who had so much hope for them.

Source – The Herald

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