Action-packed year for Zim sport

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MIXED fortunes. Indeed, this is a cliché of note in sport. But in conducting an autopsy for Zimbabwe’s sporting year in 2017, how does one move away from this old adage?

By Enock Muchinjo

This, in short, was Zimbabwe’s year on the sporting front: a season of mixed fortunes. It was indeed an eventful year, a year in which two of our major national teams — the Warriors and the Chevrons — both bagged a piece of silverware and the other, the Sables, reached an all-time low.

A year, too, when Zimbabwe played a major role in finally dislodging the ironman of African football, Issa Hayatou, who was deposed in March after 29 years as Confederation of African Football (Caf) boss. But I might have spoken too soon in wrapping up the year. The year has not even ended insofar as our cricketers are concerned.

The historic Boxing Day Test in Port Elizabeth against the Mighty South Africa — with the pink ball doing things under floodlights — might as well also define Zimbabwe’s year in cricket.

Let us, however, start at the beginning.

The year started with a feeling of great excitement across the nation when the Warriors returned to the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in 12 years. With a decent crop of players we had dubbed a “Golden Generation”, the Warriors got off to a promising start in Gabon with a 2-2 draw against the fancied Algeria, who had the high-riding Riyad Mahrez among their ranks.

With Knowledge Musona limping our early against Algeria, it means Zimbabwe were deprived of their only player of international repute and he was badly missed for the duration of that opener and the 2-0 defeat to Senegal in the second-pool tie.

Musona’s class was on show in the 4-2 loss to Tunisia in the final group game but, by that time, the nation had embraced the reality that our team was not really quite good enough at that level, and the Warriors were on their way back home. But there was a silver lining in the gloom for Zimbabwe in June when the Warriors regrouped and outclassed Liberia 3-0 in the opening match of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualification competition, with none other than that man, the talismanic Musona, grabbing a hat-trick.

While Zimbabwe’s best footballers might have looked horribly out of depth at Afcon, the country’s second-string side certainly was amongst peers five months later as they swept to victory in the Cosafa Cup, beating rivals Zambia 3-1 in the final to win a record ninth title of Southern Africa’s regional championship.

Under the normally conservative Sunday Chidzambwa, Zimbabwe surprised with an attacking brand of football throughout the tournament in South Africa, leaving most opponents bruised and scurrying for cover.

With that record, you would think Zimbabwe’s next assignment, a two-legged qualifier against Namibia for the Chan tournament, was a routine task for Chidzambwa and his bend of merry men. But alas, the gutsy Namibians had other ideas and their aggregate conquest in the tie meant Zimbabwe, who had up until then the only team to qualify for all previous Chan editions since inception in 2009, will not be in Kenya next year for the fifth instalment of the competition, reserved only for players still plying their trade in their home African countries.

On the domestic front, history was made when FC Platinum won their maiden Premier Soccer League (PSL) title, becoming the first club from outside Harare and Bulawayo, in half a century, to be crowned champions of Zimbabwe.

It was sweet reward for the Zvishavane miners, a model football club in the country in terms of professionalism.

To complete a memorable year, Platinum attacking midfielder Rodwell Chinyengetere scooped the country’s player of the year award while coach Norman Mapeza, the former Zimbabwe captain and Galatasaray player, was voted best coach in the land. But what is Zimbabwean football without controversy? There was plenty of it this year.

Zifa president Phillip Chiyangwa not surprisingly, takes top prize for the controversy of the year when he in September tried to rescind the red card of Dynamos star forward Christian Epoupa Ntouba after the Cameroonian was justifiably sent off in a heated 1-1 draw with rivals Highlanders.

From a goalpost that fell, causing the abrupt end of a cup game, to hooliganism, walkouts and match abandonments, Zimbabwean domestic football brought a mixture of the bizarre and shameful in 2017.

In the boardroom, Chiyangwa put Zimbabwe in the international spotlight when he successfully drove the campaign to unseat Issa Hayatou. Calling himself the campaign manager of eventual winner Ahmad,
Chiyangwa, as part of the campaign, went for broke, inviting Fifa president Gianni Infantino and several African football leaders to his birthday bash in Harare—a move that infuriated Hayatou and his backers, but one that proved the straw that broke the camel’s back. While Chiyangwa basked in the limelight, renowned football agent and former national player Edzai Kasinauyo, whose name had been soiled by Zifa in unproved allegations of match-fixing, died in Johannesburg in June after a short illness at the age of 42.

Back to cricket, a year that had begun on a bad note will be ending in raised spirits—a pleasing development for a sport that has lurched from one crisis to another in the last 13 years. Losing an ODI series to minnows Afghanistan at home in February was seen as a national embarrassment and Zimbabwe’s cricketers had to endure a barrage of abuse and humiliation as scorn after scorn was poured on them from all angles. Tempers flared, the height being a no-holds-barred verbal spate between Mark Vermeulen and Brendan Taylor, two former Zimbabwe teammates. The maverick Vermeulen, who apparently had been infuriated by the more dignified Taylor’s stance in defending his ex-teammates in the wake of the Afghanistan debacle, took to personal attack, calling Taylor a “little f**k” and threatening to assault him. Taylor, in defiance, reminded Vermeulen how he should not have escaped jail term following his arson attacks on two cricket properties 13 years ago.

All that seemed forgotten in July when Zimbabwe emerged from the Afghanistan wreckage to stun hosts Sri Lanka 3-2 in an ODI series. It was a glorious result which charmed the sporting world. That poor umpiring denied the African side at least a draw in the lone Test match and drew even more admiration towards Zimbabwe.

But winning that ODI series, Zimbabwe’s first in 16 years away to a major team (they had last defeated New Zealand 2-1 in 2001), was probably the most outstanding by any Zimbabwean team this year.

With that feat in Sri Lanka, coach Heath Streak, who was the captain when Zimbabwe romped to victory in New Zealand, reaffirmed his status as a true sporting icon of the country. So around the end of October, Zimbabwe were in high spirits when they hosted the West Indies in two Tests in Bulawayo. The first ended in defeat, but the hosts fought gallantly to draw the second, leaving us with some kind of hope for the historic Test in PE in a few days’ time.

How the Chevrons withstand the firepower of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander will be key, but our own three-pronged pace attack of Kyle Jarvis, Chris Mpofu and Tendai Chatara can also prove quite a handful if it comes to the party.

A sorrowful chapter in cricket in the year was the death of former board president Alwyn Pichanick, who passed away in Australia in October aged 84. Pichanick, who also became chairman of the Sports and Recreation Commission (SRC), worked industriously behind the scenes to deliver Test status for Zimbabwe, which finally came two years after his retirement in 1990.

Another tireless administrator to pass on in the year was Dave Everington, a former vice-president of the association and later a diligent general manager of ZC’s cricket operations department. Just last week, former Zimbabwe first-class player Laurence De Grandhomme also died suddenly aged 61. Moving on, the national rugby side had a year to forget throughout, only winning against minnows Senegal in the Africa Cup.

Hopes have been revived now with a new leadership, spearheaded by former national team winger Aaron Jani, that has pledged to take the Sables to the World Cup for the first time since 1991.

Speaking of the World Cup, the national Sevens side will head to the United States next year, but frankly speaking, in Sevens — where the HSBC World Sevens Series has a bigger profile than the sport’s WorldCup — much should not be made of merely qualifying.

Zimbabwe Sevens rugby is not where it should be right now. It must claim its place at the top, as a core member of the World Sevens Series, playing in all nine legs throughout the year and improving all the
team as a side.

Meanwhile, another low of the year had been boxer Charles Manyuchi, who crashed out to a shocking first-round defeat to Qudratillo Abduqaxorov of Uzbekstan to lose his World Boxing Council (WBC) welterweight world silver title.

It was a crashing defeat for Manyuchi, whose spectacular rise in the sport seemed to boost the profile of boxing in the country.

Voted the country’s Sportsperson of the Year in 2016, Manyuchi has been replaced this year by karateka Samson Muripo, who won gold in the senior men open at the Third International So-Kyokushin Karate championship in Iran in February.

Mixed fortunes. But also drama, spills, tragedy and milestones.

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