TWO major heartbreaks hit Zimbabwean sport this year, and, as 2018 comes to a close, hope is that it is not an omen for bad things to come as the national football team seeks to seal Africa Cup of Nations qualification next March.
Not even the most eternal pessimistic supporter of the Warriors would not give the team a chance to snatch at least the draw needed in Liberia last November to qualify for next year’s Afcon finals, but alas, the jinx that has stalked our major sporting disciplines in the lapsing year struck again, as the West Africans scored late to win 1-0 in Monrovia. It is not all over, though. Zimbabwe can still qualify for Afcon from Group G — and they really should — if they avoid defeat at home to Congo-Brazzaville in March. But do not hold your breath for an easy afternoon in Harare against the men from Central Africa, who are never in short supply of motivation in occasions as these ones.
Expectation is still high in the Warriors camp, but that could so easily prove to be the biggest downfall for the team.
Fortune has not always favoured our Zimbabwean sporting teams when glory has been within touching distance. Who will quickly forget that fateful day in March this year when Zimbabwe’s cricket team sent an unprecedented Harare Sports Club crowd from joy into grief, in one of the greatest sporting heartbreaks this country has ever endured. Known as the Chevrons these days by its fans, the host team had enjoyed a very good tournament in the World Cup Qualifiers up until the all-important Super Six tie against the United Arab Emirates.
But the hosts crumbled sensationally against the minnows, who defeated them by three runs on the Duckworth Lewis method to deny Zimbabwe a World Cup place for the first time since 1983.
All hell broke loose in the wake of that massive disappointment, and relentless pressure was brought to bear from all quarters on the Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) board, which was roundly accused of a legacy of maladministration, which had then culminated in the tragedy of March 22 inside Harare Sports Club.
Ignoring calls to resign en masse, the board reacted by sacking coach Heath Streak, his entire coaching staff, alongside captain Graeme Cremer and chief selector Tatenda Taibu. As expected, it was an unpopular decision that stoked the fires of conflict between ZC and its legion of critics, who took their fight to the next level by petitioning the authorities with a documented history of the association’s failings — demanding that the board be fired.
Cornered and desperate for some kind of shield from the flying brickbats, ZC chairperson Tavengwa Mukuhlani levelled shock allegations of match-fixing against the sacked coach Streak, in addition to branding the affable former Zimbabwe captain a racist.
Streak, who is suing the under-fire ZC boss for the utterances, has also approached the courts seeking liquidation of the country’s cricket governing body. The Sports and Recreation Commission (SRC), which did not initially support Streak’s move, has since withdrawn its opposition of the liquidation application in an intriguing twist to the story.
Away from the battle for control, Zimbabwe completed an otherwise disappointing year with a crushing 151-run win over Bangladesh in November to record the African side’s first away Test victory in 17 years.
And like cricket, rugby had also opened the year on a very promising note, basking in rare international news coverage befitting the appointment as Zimbabwe’s new coach of Peter de Villiers, the former Springbok mentor.
The South African’s arrival in Harare early February was greeted with widespread hope that the Sables would finally return to the sport’s World Cup for the first time since 1991, and working alongside local legend Brendan Dawson as his assistant coach, de Villiers looked shoo-in for the task at hand.
But the honeymoon would soon end when the 2018 edition of the Africa Gold Cup kicked off and Zimbabwe were without a win for the first four Tests against Morocco, Tunisia, Kenya and Namibia — in fact, facing the grim prospects of relegation to the second-tier of African rugby.
The World Cup dream was over as soon as it started, by which de Villiers had attracted a host of critics for his selection policy and, to some, a condescending attitude towards the game in this country.
The merriment that characterised de Villiers’ appointment in February seemed a very distant past by end of season. The former Bok coach had fallen out dramatically with his assistant Dawson, and in an exclusive story carried in this newspaper, he had launched an attack in a report on the former Zimbabwe captain and some administrators of the Zimbabwe Rugby Union (ZRU).
Also, a leaked WhatsApp chat of not-so-complimentary nature towards de Villiers between four renowned Zimbabwean rugby personalities — former national coach Godwin Murambiwa, ZRU vice-president Losson Mtongwiza as well as ex-captains Costa Dinha and Max Madziva — further exposed how things had theatrically changed since the South African first arrived.
A silver lining in rugby, though, was Zimbabwe’s Sevens team being crowned African champions in Tunisia in October. But apart from flashes of brilliance, performance at the Dubai and Cape Town legs of the World Sevens Series in recent weeks was largely unsatisfactory.
Which perfectly sums up the story of Zimbabwean sport in the year. — Staff Writer.