I’ve never been to Gabon, but it’s a country that has indirectly influenced my life. One of my first friends at university was from there and I won a pageant representing the country. Now it is also the first place where I saw my national team compete in a major tournament. Unfortunately, the experience wasn’t pleasant to say the least.
The African Cup of Nations 2017 was Zimbabwe’s first AFCON participation in 11 years. In between that time: coaches aplenty had been sacked, controversial business tycoon Philip Chiyangwa became Zifa president and Fifa banned us from qualifying for the 2018 World Cup because of outstanding debts.
It was in this environment that coach Callisto Pasuwa managed to qualify the nation for the finals in Gabon. Some might say that a group which included the likes of Swaziland, Malawi and Guinea was not the most tasking to advance from, but previous teams had failed in “easy” groups.
So here we are, our first group game against Algeria, beaten semi-finalists in 2015 and the fifth best nation on the continent. The game started with a great chance for Khama Billiat who had his dipping volley brilliantly parried on to the post by Rais Mboli.
But moments later it was the Desert Foxes who would take the lead. Riyad Mahrez the newly crowned African Footballer of the Year was afforded the liberty of Franceville to cut inside from the right and unleash a curling shot past Tatenda Mukuruva.
Now I like Costa Nhamoinesu a lot, he is one of the few Warriors playing at a competitive level with Sparta Prague in the Czech league. He has also experienced the Europa League. But in the Algeria game he was found wanting.
Was it the fact that he was playing centre-back instead of his left-back position at Prague? Did his partner Elisha Muroiwa who looked out of his depth give him too many fires to put out? Or was he simply not good enough? A bit of everything perhaps.
The Warriors did manage to overturn the deficit, first winger Kudakwashe Mahachi angled a low shot into the far corner and Nyasha Mushekwi converted a penalty after Onismor Bhasera was upended in the box. 2-1 to Zimbabwe at halftime.
The second-half had Algeria put the boys in yellow under immense pressure. The lads did not help their cause by retreating deeper and needlessly ceding possession the few times they had it. However they created two glorious opportunities that would have finished of the game.
First Billiat slalomed into the box, turned Aissa Mandi inside out but found Mboli equal to his shot. Then Cuthbert Mahajila was released in front of goal but instead of squaring to Mushekwi for a tap-in, fired a weak effort straight at Mboli.
Of course Algeria equalized, though Mukuruva made a meal of Mahrez’s shot, parrying it into his own net. Zimbabwe managed to hold on for the point but there was huge disappointment mixed with optimism about the performance back home. If we could take our chances and defend more resolutely against group favorites Senegal we would be in with a shout.
Instead we were dealt a harsh lesson. From the first whistle Senegal dominated in every department. In midfield Cheikou Kouyate and Idrissa Gueye looked a level above Katsande and Marvelous Nakamba. On the wings, Sadio Mané and Keita Balde tormented the Warriors defense at every opportunity. At half time the score read 2-0 to the Lions of Teranga courtesy of goals from Mané and Henri Saivet.
The second stanza was merely a formality, the Lions held Zimbabwe at paws length and could’ve embarrassed the lads if it wasn’t for Mukuruva and some lackluster finishing. Qualification was on the line in the last game, we needed to beat Tunisia and better Algeria’s result against Senegal. We duly crashed out of the tournament losing 4-2.
Casualties in the aftermath included skipper Willard Katsande who retired from international football that same day, passing the guard to the next generation and Pasuwa who was sacked by Zifa three weeks later. Though it was our first tournament in a while, there were issues that compounded the situation.
Money, Money, Moneeey always seems to be a problem with Zifa. Whether it’s a lack of funds to set up a training camp in a timely manner or paying the player’s bonuses, they always seem to come up short. Many people including Zifa vice president Omega Sibanda rounded on the players for striking over money instead of focusing on match preparations. But it resembled a deflection tactic from an organization that has previous in this matter.
Like most institutes in Zimbabwe, Zifa has been rocked with corruption scandals down the years and the public has lost faith in them. Footballers are paid to play football, if you don’t pay them the going rate they are entitled to take matters into their own hands, however bad the timing.
The players and the coach are no clement sons either. When people face adversity you hope that it galvanizes them to give their all, what we got was the leakiest defense in the group-stage conceding eight goals and seven of those came in the first-half of those games. Not once did Pasuwa see it fit to change the members of the back-line.
One can only hope that everyone involved learns from the Gabon debacle as qualification for AFCON 2019 in Cameroon is far from certain. Zimbabwe has been drawn in the same qualifying group as Congo DRC, Congo-Brazzaville and Liberia. A chance to repair damaged national pride awaits.