Zimbabwe arrive in Gabon for the 2017 Afcon finals primed to put up the kind of show that would herald the dawn of a new era after decades of unremitting failure.
The Warriors warmed up for their first appearance at Afcon in a decade with a 1-1 draw away to Cameroon on Tuesday evening, South Africa-based attacker Tendai Ndoro netting early in the first half to press his case for a starting birth.
Zimbabwe play Algeria in their opening encounter on Sunday, before they take on top-ranked Senegal in an equally challenging assignment on 19 January. They complete their Group B schedule four days later against Tunisia, another formidable team in their own right.
It vividly illustrates the magnitude of the task awaiting coach Calisto Pasuwa’s side, who are ranked 30th in Africa. Their three Group B rivals are all in the top five.
The performance against Cameroon, however, is a massive boost for Zimbabwe, who had departed their homeland under a thick cloud, after some simmering discontent over remunerations exploded into open confrontation between the players and authorities.
If anything, the Warriors have shown they can overcome the anarchy that has defined their preparations and focus solely on football, as they look to push for a place in the quarter-finals for the first time in their history.
Yet that target certainly remains a tall order, but failure to accomplish it would by no means represent a disaster for this fledgling team—all the players are making their Nations Cup debuts.
At the very least though, Pasuwa will need to engineer some competitive performances which show that, at long last, the worst is all but over and Zimbabwe now belong at the top table of African football. And the task begins on Sunday against an Algeria side who are packed with quality and heavily tipped to go all the way in the tournament.
The Algerians do not only enjoy the advantages of a team who have been playing together for long, they also have within their ranks some of the continent’s most exciting talents, with Leicester duo forward Riyad Mahrez and Islam Sliman the peak of the crop.
This is perhaps Algeria’s best chance to win their first title since 1990, and coach George Leekens has emphasised the importance of victory in their first two group matches.
“We want to win this tournament and take part in the Confederations Cup,” the Belgian told Cafonline. “But all I am thinking about right now is negotiating our first match well against Zimbabwe and then the second against Tunisia.”
Zimbabwe would, however, not aid their cause by trotting on to the pitch with their tails between their legs. The pressure will actually be on the opponents, who will be going all out for an early goal to calm the nerves.
The Algerians have struggled mightily in recent World Cup qualifiers, drawing their opening match at home to Cameroon, before a chastening 3-1 defeat by Nigeria left them propping up the pool with a single point.
The biggest source of hope for Pasuwa’s team should be his potent forward line which, on a good day, is able to strike at the slightest invitation.
Zimbabwe’s qualifying pool was not exactly a challenging one, and Knowledge Musona et al were able to secure top spot in Group L ahead of Swaziland, Guinea and Malawi with a game to spare.
But, there were some superb individual displays along the way. The presence of players of the calibre of Musona, Khama Billiat, Netherlands-based midfielder Marvellous Nakamba, Costa Nhamoinesu and 21-year-old goalkeeper Tatenda Mukuruva ensured that the Warriors were really able to galvanise a hitherto disenchanted support base.
Musona and Billiat scored three goals apiece, with the former taking his Warriors goal haul to 16.
But in Gabon the defenders will be more tougher, world class even. Yet that perhaps provides the pair with the inspiration to prove their mettle before a continental audience.
At 26, the two former Academy team-mates are just entering their peak years. Both are technically sound and can fill a variety of roles upfront. The presence of big centre-forwards Ndoro and Nyasha Mushekwi further enhances Zimbabwe’s goal threat in the final third.
The bottom line, though, is that this Zimbabwe team is still a work in progress, with the defence remaining the weakest link. They struggled for cohesion during the qualifiers, with the absence of a natural number 10 creating an unhelpful disconnect between the lines.
It will not help that Pasuwa has to do without suspended midfielder Nakamba for the Algeria tie.
The 22-year-old’s unique blend of tenacity and brilliance would have come in handy in mopping up the loose balls and tidying up play in central midfield alongside gritty captain Willard Katsande.
Perennial underachievers Zimbabwe are making the Afcon finals for only the third time since readmission to international football after independence back in 1980, having waited an agonising 24 years to make their 2004 debut.
They were back again for the 2006 edition in Egypt, yet that bright spell was to prove a mere flirt as the southern Africans relapsed to condemn their fans to a further ten years of anguish.
The onus now falls on the class of 2017 to convince the fans that, at the very least, the future is certainly not as bleak as the past.
By Simba Mushati