Isaac Chansa helps Zambia beat neighbours Zimbabwe in Zambezi derby

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Zimbabwe were left to rue missed opportunities as they lost 1-0 to Zambia, in their opening match of the 2016 Orange African Nations Championship. After the 2-2 draw between Mali and Uganda, the result leaves the Warriors bottom of Group D, but with all to play for.

The match took place in Rubavu, eastern Rwanda an area full of lush green hills that formed the background around the stadium. The pitch was at odds with the scenery as closer inspection revealed that it was synthetic. Perfect for passing but unforgiving to bare skin that rubbed against it. This competition prides itself on promoting domestic players, but Zambia were able to call on players that had foreign experience.

Captain Chris Katongo and Isaac Chansa boast clubs from China, Germany and Sweden on their CV’s as well as an African Nations Cup triumph in 2012. Warriors coach Calisto Pasuwa may not have such experience at his disposal but players such as skipper Hardlife Zvirekwi and fullback Ocean Mushure feature regularly for the national team.

Much was made back home of the injuries and lack of friendlies scheduled by the Warriors. Zambia had played preparatory matches ahead of the game and were considered to be one of the fittest squads at the tournament. On the pitch, the difference between both teams was closer to the proximity of both countries than the preparation, as Zambia dominated possession and Zimbabwe created the better chances.

However it was the Zambians who created the first opportunity of the game, Katongo’s header missing the target by inches. They were soon on the back foot as Banda parried Chitiyo’s powerful strike, after the winger was released in the box. The bright start to the first half was followed by a period of over hit passes and robust tackles. It was clear that the majority of players were used to playing on grass.

At the end of the half the Warriors had a glorious chance to make the breakthrough, Chirambadare did well to steal in front of Kabamba to hone in on Banda  but fired wide with the goal at his mercy. A costly miss. After the interval Pasuwa’s men continued the trend of creating and missing great opportunities. The dangerous Chitiyo controled a high ball in the box, pressurized by Kabamba his lob beat Banda but not the covering defender on the line.

The breakthrough  in the 58th minute was spectacular. Chansa ghosted to the far post and was found with an excellent curling pass, the Chipolopolo star opened his body and steered a right footed volley past Donovan. Cue a mock military salute celebration from Katongo, who served for his country. The Warriors had to respond and they did. Mutuma was brought on to add more firepower and he was instantly involved.

First his throw in was chested into the path of Chirambadare whose drive flashed across goal. Then his through ball played Francisco in but once again Banda was equal to the strikers toe poke. That was to be the Warriors last chance as Zambia safely saw through the final minutes.

Pasuwa will reflect on a match that saw his team have less of the ball (43%) and  still take the same number of shots (on target) as their opponents (5). For Zambia progression to the next round is looking good but their neighbours will have to be more prolific if they are to join them.

 

Sadio Mané and Victor Wanyama’s futures in doubt as transfer window opens for business

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Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe fell in pain. The culprit Victor Wanyama remained on the ground, resigned to his fate as the referee brandished a second yellow and then a red. The Kenyan’s dismissal was to prove costly as Alex Tettey’s strike insured that Norwich City prevailed over Southampton. Sadio Mané the other African, was dropped to the bench for a late show to the pre-match briefing.

Both men were linked with moves away from St Mary’s last summer, Wanyama interested Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United were rumored to be keen on Mané. The Saints boss Ronald Koeman has made it clear that both players are not for sale, but the Norwich game might make him think hard about both men’s commitment to the team.

Southampton have lost 7 of their last 9 matches in all competitions, the 4-0 win against Arsenal a false dawn. Mané and Wanyama are both starters when fit, but have suffered from a dip in form. The 6’2″ Kenyan is an imposing presence in midfield however, this seasons  two sending-offs  were a result of accumulation of cards. This hints at a lack of control when playing on the edge.

Mané at 5’9″ is not as physically intimidating as Wanyama, but has the pace, stamina and quick feet to trouble the most robust of defenses. The Senegalese international scored the quickest hat-trick in Premier League history, clocked at 176 seconds against Aston Villa last season. His impact on the field has been hindered by off field misdemeanors: A no show at a team meeting early last year resulted in being dropped from the starting lineup against Liverpool who won 2-0.

There is a trend when Mané is dropped from the squad, Southampton lose. It is not inconceivable to think that potential suitors might be put off by the duos comportment, if indeed they’re trying to push a move through. For two of Africa’s hottest stars, the January transfer window could be an eventful one.

 

UEFA Champions League round of 16 draw reaction

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©Getty Images for UEFA

The annual last 16 draw of the UEFA Champions league took place this Monday in Nyon, Switzerland. As can be expected, some exciting ties were drawn out of the bowl in what is likely to be another entertaining round of fixtures.

UEFA Secretary General Gianni Infantino conducted his second draw in three days after Saturday’s Euro 2016 draw, but didn’t seem fatigued as he enthusiastically welcomed and briefed the delegates who were representing the 16 participants.

There was praise for Christiano Ronaldo who top scored in the group stage with 11 goals and in the process, became the competitions all-time goalscorer with 88. A hell of an achievement.

Infantino also welcomed former Internazionale Milano Captian, Javier Zanetti to the stage. The 2010 Champions League winner is this season’s ambassador for the final, which will be held in the San Siro, a stadium that Zanetti knows well.

UEFA Competitions Director Giorgio Marchetti’s arrival, as has in previous years, heralded the beginning of the draw. Here are the matches:

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Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

The one that immediately sticks out is Arsenal vs. Barcelona. The English team were beaten by the current holders in the 2006 final. They were also knocked out by the Spanish side in the 2009/10 quarter finals and the 2010/11 round of 16.

The match heralds reunions for a few players: Alexis Sanchez  left Barcelona for Arsenal last year. Hector Bellerin a product of La Masia, has the opportunity to play on a pitch he dreamed of walking on when he was younger and former Gunners Captain, Thomas Vermaelen, might face his old side if either Javier Mascherano or Gerard Pique are unavailable.

Paris Saint-Germain face Chelsea for the third consecutive season in the knockout rounds with both teams eliminating each other in the two previous years. PSG lead the French league by 17 points while Chelsea are currently 16th domestically.

AS Roma were a bit disappointing in the group stages. Unable to beat Bate Borisov at home in their last group match, they qualified because of Bayer Leverkusen’s inability  to beat a weakened Barcelona. Rudi Garcia’s team must improve if they want to shock 10-time champions Real Madrid.

FC Bayern Munich are always favorites in this competition. But their credentials will be tested by a Juventus side that reached the final last year. Kingsley Coman featured sporadically for Juve, but has flourished this season in the colors of Bayern. Expect him to have a point to prove.

It is the battle of the striped shirts when PSV Eindhoven meet Atletico de Madrid. They met before in the 2008/9 group stages, Atletico won both games. But the Dutch club will feel confident having qualified at the expense of Manchester United.

Two knockout round debutants in Vfl Wolfsburg and KAA Ghent will aim to make history by reaching the quarterfinals for the first time. Wolfsburg may look stronger on paper, but the gutsy Belgians beat Champions League regulars Olympique Lyonnais and CF Valencia to get to this stage.

SL Benfica will meet a familiar foe in the form of Football Club Zenit’s coach, Andre Villas-Boas who coached FC Porto. The Portuguese flavor continues with Zenit playmaker Danny, who’ll want to make an impression when he returns home.

Last but not least we have Manchester City who are relived not to be facing Barcelona again and will view FC Dynamo Kiev as manageable opposition. Kiev knocked City out of the Europa League in 2010/11, a similar victory would be a big triumph.

The dice has rolled and the stage is set. Initial prognostics will change as form fluctuates and fortunes turn. This is when the games will be played:

First legs:
16 February: Paris v Chelsea, Benfica v Zenit
17 February: Gent v Wolfsburg, Roma v Real Madrid
23 February: Arsenal v Barcelona, Juventus v Bayern
24 February: PSV v Atlético, Dynamo Kyiv v Manchester City

Second legs:
8 March: Wolfsburg v Gent, Real Madrid v Roma
9 March: Chelsea v Paris, Zenit v Benfica
15 March: Atlético v PSV, Manchester City v Dynamo Kyiv
16 March: Barcelona v Arsenal, Bayern v Juventus

 

Philip Chiyangwa: Sizing up Zifa’s new president & the challenges he faces

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On 5 December 2015, the 58 member council of Zifa (Zimbabwe Football Association) convened to vote in a new structural hierarchy which included the associations president. It was Dr Phillip Chiyangwa who emerged victorious over James Takavada, Leslie Gwindi and Trevor Carelse-Juul. A diverse group of candidates who’ve experience in football management, politics and business growth. But will cash or football acumen revive the sport in the country?

Zifa is broke. The governing body is reportedly $6 million in debt and has been banned by Fifa from entering the national team into the qualification phase for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The current situation can be attributed to a corrupt leadership with little interest in football that mismanaged funds to develop the game locally.

For years now, the domino effect has been in full swing: The quality of pitches including the National Sports Stadium’s is in a poor state, the bridge between grassroots  and professional level football is nonexistent, sponsors choose to invest in more organized sports such as rugby, hockey which are mostly played by the influential white minority in the country. This is just scratching the surface.

For a businessmen such as Chiyangwa, pumping money into the sport shouldn’t be a problem. “Phidza” as Chiyangwa is affectionately known, has saved companies such as G&D Shoes from liquidation, bought TV rights for ZBC (Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation) to screen international football and was responsible for Micheal Jackson’s 1998 visit to explore business ventures.

He was also the patron of the now defunct Chinoyi United in the 90s. Offering financial support and guidance at a time when he was  relatively unknown in the country. The latter experience has proved vital, as an individual without experience in football would not have been able to run for the presidency.

It remains to be seen if Chiyangwa can win over the people of Zimbabwe, who remain put off by his flamboyant and aggressive character. Doubts still linger over his suitability to lead football at the highest level: Carelse-Juul was a former player and served as the chairman of Zifa during the successful “Dream Team” era, James Takavada was a fixture in the national team  and Leslie Gwindi is a former Zifa secretary general.

What can be guaranteed is that eventful times lie ahead for football followers in the country. Debt needs to be cleared, former coaches need to be paid and most importantly, the women’s team “the Mighty Warriors” need the associations full support to be successful in the 2016 Olympic Games. Over to you Phidza.

 

 

 

 

A golden cockerel, World Cup and Thierry Henry Part 1

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Prior to the age of 15, football meant very little to me. Once, Tonton Christian got me the full 1998 France kit, the red socks, white shorts and blue shirt emblazoned with the golden cockerel didn’t churn any feelings of pride or patriotism in my young mind. There was one player though, who’d play a key role in my growing interest of the game, Thierry Henry.

My mother couldn’t stop talking about him as he shared our Guadeloupean roots. Though it was important to note that he was born in Paris (like my mother coincidentally). In 2006 something changed. Was it the charm of the World Cup in Germany? The full game coverage offered by DStv or the sight of a familiar face in the French team? Whatever it was, I was up for the cup!

I exclusively watched Les Bleus’ matches and was happy to see Titi (as Henry is affectionately known) in action. A scoreless draw with Switzerland was disappointing, but the 1-1 stalemate with South Korea was worrying. The only positive was Titi scoring his first goal of the tournament. The game against  Togo was a must win if we wanted to advance to the knockout rounds. A lot of African teams who have colonial ties with France always prove to be tricky opposition. But Henry and co were in no mood to pack their bags as they won 2-0, Titi on the score-sheet.

The Spaniards were overpowered 3-1 in the round of 16. Henry probably enjoyed it the most as  La Roja’s coach Luis Aragones once called  him a “black shit.” Our reward was a quarterfinal clash with the reigning champions Brazil. In Zimbabwe, Brazil is everyone’s second national team, if not first. So it wasn’t a surprise to find that I would be the only Les Bleus supporter at my gogo and sekuru’s place. What raised my eyebrow was Simba supporting the South Americans. Clearly treason took a backseat to jogo bonito.

My sibling’s folly proved to be just that, as Henry steered a side footed volley into the net for the only goal. Simba came back to his senses and pledged allegiance to a France team that went all the way to the final. Many people regarded Zinedine Zidane as the talisman of the team, not I. Yeah the guy came out of retirement and was playing out of his skin – but as the gold boots hinted, all the hype was getting to his head. Ask Marco Materazzi.

Henry on the other hand was a bit under appreciated. The combination of flawless technique and refined power didn’t seem to wow the Gaulic public as much as the English when he wore the colours of Arsenal. Perhaps it was his perceived aloofness? In the World Cup final I did come across one of the possible reasons: The big game player doesn’t show up for finals. the Confederations Cup aside he rarely scored or produced a virtuoso moment to affect the result.

Against Italy, he was well policed by Fabio Cannavaro and was revived by the medical team’s smelling salts when  the Azurri skipper caught him with an “accidental” elbow. Many people blamed Zidane for the loss to the Italians. Gold boots saw red after responding to Materazzi’s insults with a forehead to the chest. But if Henry had contributed anything close to the South Korea, Togo and Brazil games, we instead of Italy would have been world champs.

After Germany, the general consensus was that most of the elder statesmen in the team were closer to the end than the beginning. With Euro 2008 in two years, a mixture of old and new were used in the qualifiers. The likes of Samir Nasri, Hatem Ben Arfa and Karim Benzema complemented Titi’s experience. Les Bleus qualified without much fuss from their group. Henry’s highlights were scoring in a 3-1 revenge win over Italy and becoming the countries all time goalscorer, by surpassing Michel Platini’s haul of 41 with a brace against Lithuania.

My memories of Euro 2008 are not happy.  One of our dogs T-Rex died of poisoning and on the field, Titi’s men might well have been poisoned as they finished bottom of their group. The first game against Romania has to be the dullest match I ever watched. The 0-0 a fair result. If the first match was uninspiring , the second match would be the opposite … but for our opponents the Netherlands.

The Dutch were leading 2-0 and thoroughly outplaying us when, Henry gave us Les Bleus a lifeline, flicking Willy Sagnol’s cross past Edwin van der Sar. Arjen Robben’s goal seconds later, cut the line and Wesley Sneijder’s late strike was an unnecessary nail in a coffin that was well shut. Funny enough, France could still advance to the next round if we beat Italy and the Dutch did the same against the Romanians.

Ah Italy. Our rivals also needed a win after an equally dire showing that yielded a solitary point. Unfortunately, the Azurri would play the role of undertaker to our Euro hopes. Andrea Pirlo converted a penalty when Eric Abidal fouled Luca Toni in the position of last man and was sent off. Titi had given us hope with a flick of the boot against the Netherlands, how ironic that it was his boot that flicked Pirlo’s free kick past Gregory Coupet to put the result beyond doubt.

Following Les Bleus from an Anglophone country is a noise free experience. The reason I say this is because of the French press. Ever Since Raymond Domenech took charge of the team. The national papers and magazines have analyzed, colonoscopied, patted down, dissected, spaded and castrated Les Bleus. It must be said that Domenech is easy to dislike. His my way or the highway approach to management and inability to play in an imaginative/daring way (the hallmark of the 1998 squad) were to be his undoing.

There were people along the way who gave him a hand in his journey to the abyss. Titi’s hand was one of the most extended. His was to become one of the most hated in Ireland, second in notoriety to Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God.” Enter the “Hand of Gaul.”

To be continued …

The day Brazil came to Harare

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Brazil’s Michel Bastos (R) and Zimbabwe’s Quincy Antipas (L) get to grips with each other. Andre Penner/AP

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The lack of international friendlies played by the Warriors used to annoy me. I subscribe to the idea that: The more games you play, the better you get. During the months before the 2010 World Cup I would get my wish. Zifa (Zimbabwe Football Association) announced that the five-time world champions Brazil, were coming to town!

The days leading to the match, Harare was abuzz with excitement. People still couldn’t believe that they were going to see their heroes in the flesh: Robinho, Júlio César, Thiago Silva and especially Kaká, captured the imagination. Not all of the chatter was positive, the local press was rightly suspicious of the funding for the match.

Since 2007, players of local clubs, the national team and Zifa officials have been involved in the biggest scandal to hit Zim football, Asiagate. Spanning 300 matches over three continents, controversies include local club Monomotapa FC masquerading as the Warriors in Malaysia and throwing matches for thousands of dollars. Henrietta Rushwaya the Zifa CEO at the time, was at the heart of the scandal but also played a big role in scheduling this illustrious match. For most people, it was a case of eating your food without minding where it came from.

Personally, I had never been to a football stadium so all the brouhaha  didn’t dampen my mood. My mother’s friend Gavin was kind enough to get a ticket for me. Match day, we were also joined by a young man who was my junior and an older man. Unfortunately the ravages of time have caused me to forget their names.

On the way to the National Sports Stadium, the road was full of cars with Zim flags. The energy was palpable. We parked at the old man’s home in Milton Park, one of the oldest suburbs in Harare and a few kilometers away from the stadium.

Not everyone is a fan of the vuvuzela. Photocredit: fifa.com
Not everyone is a fan of the vuvuzela. Photocredit: fifa.com

The buzzing sound of the vuvuzelas was everywhere, comparable to a swarm of angry bees. I liked it. The whole stadium erupted as both sets of players came out for the warm-up. I recognized Captain Benjani Mwaruwari who had endured a difficult season at Manchester City, plagued by injuries. There was also Knowledge Musona who was scoring for fun in South Africa with Kaizer Chiefs. Both men were our primary goal threats.

For the South Americans, Gilberto Silva and Michel Bastos who were heading the ball to each other, were the players I really wanted to see. The former was part of “The Invincibles” Arsenal side that went 49 games unbeaten, the latter played for Olympique Lyonnais, a favourite of mine in France.

A cacophony of whistles and cheers rained down from the terraces as President Robert Mugabe appeared on the screen. A divisive figure, the variety of races, classes and political opinions present, guaranteed a mixed reception. The reaction to  Kaká was more unanimous. Every man and their dog serenaded the 2007 FIFA Player of the Year, while Benjani enjoyed equal adulation.

After both anthems were sung, the friendly hostilities began. The coaches Norman Mapeza and Dunga had both represented their countries as players. It would be an intriguing battle. The Warriors were well organized, energetically hounding Dunga’s men for the ball. Bastos a winger playing fullback was having  a particular torrid time, unable to handle Zim’s nimble front line.

Kaká grimaces in pain after being fouled. Photo credit: fifa.com
Kaká grimaces in pain after being fouled. Photo credit: fifa.com

Kaká wasn’t up to much either, though the way he glided with the ball reminded everyone of his class. His counterpart Ovidi Karuru, blazed over when it was easier to score. Knowledge Musona’s powerful header drew a diving safe from César, who injured his shoulder in the process and was substituted by Heurelho Gomes.

Mapeza would’ve been pleased with proceedings until Luís Fabiano was fouled on the edge of our box, five minutes from halftime. Bastos stepped over the ball, I out of everyone in the stadium knew what was coming. He smashed a left footed shot right into the top corner. Edmore Sibanda in goal was crucified.

“Bara!” Exclaimed a fat man next to me. The word means bullet in Shona  and is also reserved for top class strikes like the one we had just witnessed. Two minutes later the lead was doubled. Maicon angled a long ball to Robinho, shrugging the attentions of the defender, the winger made no mistake with the finish. We hadn’t played badly by any stretch of the imagination, but Dunga’s men had that extra quality.

The second half was a different kettle of fish. Brazil had seized control of the game and duly added a third when Elano tapped in fellow substitute Dani Alves’ drag back. All we wanted to see now was a Zim goal, which we thought we had when Gomes’ net rippled, but it was the wrong side of the goal.

As the sun set and the floodlights lit the pitch, the humming of the vuvuzelas calmed down and a steady stream of people headed for the exits. Gilberto along with  his midfield companions, sucked out what little life the game had with a masterpiece in ball retention.

The blow of the final whistle was greeted with applause. The stars we had only seen on TV had performed for us in the flesh and our Warriors fought valiantly. Dunga would have been satisfied with the competitive nature of the match, Mapeza with the promise shown by his squad. The match wet the appetite for a dream we as a nation still have to this day: To compete with teams like Brazil at a World Cup.

A JOLLY GOOD DAY OF FOOTBALL AT ANNUNCIATION PARK

 

Photo credit: .nycgovparks.org

3-0. The number of times I’ve been on the winning side with the NYC Pickup Soccer Group. I don’t put much stock into such records … but emerging victorious usually means you had a good game!

Prior to the match, there were enough omens to hint at a pleasant Saturday morning. My breakfast which consisted of fruit salad and two eggs was the right fuel I needed, for the physical excursion ahead.

With a satisfied stomach and high spirits, I stepped out into the street and was welcomed by a nice cool breeze which countered the sticky humidity that’s constant throughout New York summers.

The train ride to the park was uneventful, though I’ll remember a black lady whose eyes were greener than the $1 note I gave her.

At first glance, Annunciation Park does not strike one as much of a park. It consists of a church, playground and a small turf field surrounded by a miniature track. It’s location on   W135th  and Amsterdam Avenue also adds to a sense of spatial scarcity.

As is usual practise, I got set up with Mane, the onsite organiser who put me on the red team. A good omen indeed as I had won the previous meetup wearing that colour.

The good people who show up are mostly white, but other races are also represented. There was an Arab guy wearing the new Arsenal kit with Alexis printed on his back. I approved. A tall pony-tailed chap and a short, stubby ginger-beard were wearing Tottenham shirts, which I didn’t approve. Their poor taste didn’t ruin my pre-match warm-up, which involved juggling in my red Cavaliers shoes as cleats weren’t allowed.

For the opening minutes of the match, I started in goal and apart from letting a soft shot go past me, I distributed the ball with the accuracy you would expect from an outfield player. (Sorry goalkeepers union!)

Later on I played on the left side and ended up switching flanks. I noticed that our opponents were having difficulties when we’d stretch play to the wings, something that I’d ruthlessly exploit in the second period.

The game was tied 2-2 at the break, but we took an early lead in the second half thanks to yours truly. The ball was passed  to me in space on the left and I lashed a low shot into the bottom corner.

The Arab guy wearing the Alexis shirt was a live wire. We combined well for a goal that would’ve had top scouts in Europe wagging their tongues.

The final whistle blew and both teams thanked each other for the game. On my way back home, I crawled underneath an SUV to retrieve my ball that I’d volleyed half a block wide.

The sun was at it’s Zenith as I walked back to 113th with 60 minutes of football under my belt. By all accounts a pleasurable outing at this most bizarre of parks.