Warriors left hanging in Gabon

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.