Afcon 2019: Litmus test for Warriors

EXACTLY two years have passed; it is hard to believe now, since Zimbabwe’s successful 2017 Africa Cup of Nations qualification campaign got off to the most chaotic start imaginable.

Sports Panorama: Enock Muchinjo

The Warriors, locked in a payment dispute with the Zimbabwe Football Association (Zifa), had refused to board their flight to the opening qualifier against hosts Malawi, then having to take a strenuous road trip there and arriving Halloween night on the eve of the game.

Fortunately, the game was won and qualification sealed quite comfortably, with a game to spare, and Zimbabwe were on their way to the Afcon finals for the first time in 11 years.

A wave of euphoria and expectation could be felt across the country as the tournament drew closer. Football, for a moment, removed a great stain from the nation’s batter soul. Then who can forget that eruption of whistles, cheers and an outburst of emotion echoing across the land — from homes and public gatherings — when Kudakwashe Mahachi slotted home to bring the Warriors level in the first half of our Afcon opener against fancied Algeria.

Prior to the tournament, Zimbabwe’s team — with the plaudits led by us press corps — had been feted like kings in a football-mad country often struggling to realise its full potential in the sport.

Coach Callisto Pasuwa was hailed as a saviour, a God-sent genius who had plucked Zimbabwean football from the dark days of the past 11 years.

As for the players, they were labelled a “golden generation”, perhaps the finest crop we have ever produced in this country, even better than Reinhard Fabisch’s much-hyped Dream Team that still brings nostalgia for many. The giant crescendo of that excitement would, however, soon die down, events of the Warriors’ campaign in Gabon proving that we were not what we thought we were — a very sobering experience indeed for Zimbabwean football.

Pasuwa is not suddenly the worst coach around. Not by a long shot. No coach wins four straight titles in any domestic competition in the world if he didn’t have some of the right stuff needed to achieve a feat like that. But in Gabon he misfired horribly and was cruelly exposed, his technical brains proving considerably short at this level of the game.

The players still remain a decent bunch, but the skills, conditioning and tactical awareness clearly were not at par with a lot of the sides in Gabon.

In all seriousness, the Warriors got an easy passage to the 2017 Afcon finals.

Guinea, the Warriors’ greatest threat and every bookmaker’s favourite to go to Gabon from Group L, were heavily affected by the turmoil engulfing their camp during the qualification period.

Swaziland, long-time minnows of African football, punched above their weight but ran out of legs in the end. Malawi huffed and puffed, but too often the Flames do not burn quite enough, as was in this instance. But there is no escaping it this time.

Two years after Zimbabwean football made rare global news headlines with its national team that refused to board a flight to a game, we face the tough reality check of what should be a harder qualification competition for the 2019 Afcon edition in Cameroon. The Democratic Republic of Congo, quarter-finalists in Gabon and the continent’s fifth ranked side, will be odds-on favourites to win the group and seal automatic qualification.

Their namesake, Congo-Brazzaville, are also a real handful — an occasional nuisance to even some of the continent’s best sides.

They have been to more Afcon finals than Zimbabwe and, although they were not in Gabon early this year, they reached the quarter-finals as recent as 2015 and were African champions 45 years ago — a proud tournament record for a country of just under five million. What about Liberia, our first opponent at the National Sports Stadium on Sunday in the Cameroon 2019 quest?

Well, the West Africans have underachieved for many years, quite unfortunate for the home of the great George Weah.

But underrate, at your own the peril, the country that gave the continent arguably its greatest footballer of all time. The Lone Stars can pack quite a punch on their day.

This is the litmus test of character for us.