SOMETHING quite interesting happened in world sport this week, and while it might not remotely catch the attention of the average sport lover somewhere across the universe, the scale of the achievement is no less remarkable than any sporting fairy tale.
By Enock Muchinjo
Madagascar, a nation of some 25 million people, qualified at the weekend for its first Africa Cup of Nations finals, ending a long barren spell dating back 72 years when the country played its first-ever international football match.
The Indian Ocean island is a unique country in Africa: it is one of very few nations in the world that for many decades have had rugby as their most popular national sport.
The 2019 Afcon-bound team, nicknamed the Barea, shares its home ground, the
22 000-seater Mahamasina Municipal Stadium in the capital city Antananarivo, with the national rugby side.
Often, when the rugby team plays its international matches at Mahamasina, it draws a considerably bigger crowd than the football team. This is how rugby has been for many years to this vast island nation, whose romance with the sport was sparked off by resident French railroad workers more than a century ago.
Meanwhile, Madagascar — who became the first team to qualify for next year’s Africa Cup of Nations — are not the only surprise package impressing in these qualifiers.
Uganda, who only returned to the Africa Cup of Nations in 2017 after a 40-year absence, are undefeated so far, and it looks like nothing will block the East Africans’ passage to Cameroon next year.
It is not only such teams as Madagascar and Uganda who now have improved chances of qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations, in the wake of the expansion of the tournament from 16 to 24 teams — starting next year. Other minnows will also scramble through.
Fear, though, is that a bigger tournament might have a negative impact by diluting the quality of the football played.
It well could be the case in the early stages of expansion — quite a few games will be blowouts, and the tournament will be a bit of a dud somewhere in the middle.
The good thing, in due course, is that some of the lower-tier nations will start to improve as they get to play more at that sort of level. Look at some of the results in the qualification competition recently and you will see that they already are improving significantly.
But what does a bigger Africa Cup of Nations do to a team like, say, Zimbabwe?
In simple terms, it means mere qualification no longer is something to celebrate long and hard.
The expansion of the Africa Cup of Nations, which has delivered more qualification slots, means it will be almost impossible for a lot of the better teams on the continent — perhaps our own Warriors included — to miss out on qualifying.
With chances of qualifying increasing immensely for the fast-improving minnows — Madagascar have made it through for the first time and Uganda are pretty well set for a second straight appearance — a team like Zimbabwe should revise priorities with regards to the Africa Cup of Nations.
When Zimbabwe finally seals qualification for Cameroon 2019, which really is non-negotiable given the talent at our disposal, the Warriors should look to compete well and eye at least the later stages of the tournament at the finals.
Small goals no longer suit the dazzling array of talent in the squad.
Zimbabwe at the moment has an opportunity to make giant strides in African football, and join the big boys.
If the opportunity is grabbed with both hands, teams like Madagascar and Uganda — with their much bigger populations, if it translates into a larger talent pool — will be watching and thinking they can catch up, or even surpass a team like the Warriors.
What a collective national failure for Zimbabwe, if that were to happen.