ZIMBABWEAN sports fans will this weekend turn to the national soccer team to soothe the pain brought by years of under-achievement in team sports.
>While cricket and rugby sides seem to have connived to disgrace themselves and their legion of followers, the Warriors have revitalised themselves significantly as they are on the threshold of qualifying for their second ever Africa Cup of Nations, to be held in Egypt early next year.
In fairness to the Warriors, the team seems more mindful of their national responsibility these days. And the national question will be answered on Sunday in front of an expected sell-out crowd at the National Sports Stadium when the Warriors square-up with lowly Rwanda in the combined World Cup/ Africa Cup of Nations qualifier.
With domestic football not in the right shape, Zimbabweans will turn to the Warriors for some form of salvation.
The Warriors, having started their campaign on the backfoot losing two consecutive Group 4 games, at home to Nigeria and away to Angola last year, turned the afterburners on after Charles Mhlauri took over as head coach. He won two reverse fixtures at home against Angola and Gabon, and then forced a remarkable away draw in Algeria.
Added to that is the Cosafa Castle Cup victory by the Warriors’ second-string side in South Africa last month. While the regional Cosafa trophy might not be of high-status as would have been desired, it gave the coach an opportunity to weigh his options for the more important task ahead.
Skipper Peter Ndlovu and France-based striker Benjani Mwaruwari hold the key to Zimbabwe’s success.
And with several key players such as George Mbwando, Tinashe Nengomasha and Edelbert Dinha out of the Sunday game, herein lies the importance of the Cosafa win, as Mhlauri will have valid reasons to turn to the fringe players who were in action in the regional tournament.
“It was an important achievement for us and the country,” Mhlauri told IndependentSport. “But the bottom line is that we want to have a broader playing base, and I think that was the other good thing that came out of it (the Cosafa victory).”
But in his usual precautious approach, Mhlauri did not say for sure whether he will give berths to the fringe players on Sunday.
“It’s a continuous process,” he said. “We still have to work a lot harder on our combinations, and I cannot exactly say we have the right combinations now.”
Warriors’ manager Ernest Sibanda emphasised on checking complacency in the team.
“We can only start to celebrate after 90 minutes on Sunday,” said Sibanda. “I’m happy with the atmosphere in camp. Everyone is raring to go.
Competition for places is tough and the players who will be chosen to play should be able to do the job for us.”
* Meanwhile, Angola can book their tickets to Germany 2006 should the Group 4 leaders beat Gabon this weekend and Nigeria fall in Algeria.
The Angolans top the group with 15 points, the same as the Nigerians, yet top the standings courtesy of a better head-to-head record.
Angola coach Oliveira Goncalves is trying to lead the Palancas Negras to their first World Cup finals, a task that would be eased by victory over Gabon in Luanda on Sunday.
“It is not an easy game because Gabon will come to win so we need to have massive support from the public to ensure we take advantage of playing at home,” said Angola goalkeeper Joao Pereira.
Angola know that victory against Gabon followed by a win in their final qualifier in Rwanda in October will secure a World Cup spot.
This would be a damaging blow to Nigeria, with Africa’s most populous nation having reached every World Cup finals since the 1994 edition in the United States.
Yet the Super Eagles have already been hit with one setback, when it was learnt that team captain Jay-Jay Okocha will not play in Sunday’s tie in Oran because of injury.
Okocha has already missed two crucial qualifiers – Nigeria’s 1-0 defeat in Angola last year and June’s draw against bottom-placed Rwanda which compounded the Super Eagles’ woes.
In third place in the group, Zimbabwe, who trail the two leaders by three points, could still qualify for the World Cup. – BBC Sport.
P W D L GF GA Pts
Angola 8 4 3 1 8 6 15
Nigeria 8 4 3 1 11 4 15
Zimbabwe 8 3 3 2 9 8 12
Gabon 8 2 3 3 11 10 9
Algeria 8 1 4 3 6 10 7
Rwanda 8 1 2 5 5 12 5