On the eve of their start of the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers, Zimbabwe seek to make the jump from perennial marginal contenders to realistic contenders as they contemplate a tough programme of matches against Guinea, Kenya and Namibia over the month of June.
Their morale will be boosted by a jump of three places in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, moving them up to 95th in the overall standings. It is still a long way off their all-time high of 40th, achieved more than a decade ago, but it keeps Zimbabwe in the top 100 where they have camped continually, save for a single month, in the 15 years since FIFA first introduced the official global ranking.
Despite their consistent position, the country is desperate to step it up a notch. After years of coming exceedingly close, they finally achieved their dream of qualification for the CAF Africa Cup of Nations finals, securing a berth in the 2004 edition in Tunisia. Two years later they were back for the tournament in Egypt but failed to qualify for the last finals in Ghana earlier this year.
In previous FIFA World Cup qualifying campaigns, Zimbabwe have also come agonisingly close. Once they came within a single game of reaching the world finals before being pipped at the final hurdle. But with the next FIFA World Cup being played across the border in South Africa, there is now a massive added incentive to bolster their latest campaign.
The majority of Zimbabwe's squad are drawn from clubs in South Africa's Premier Soccer League, giving the players a first-hand view of the excitement of the preparations leading up to 2010.
Zimbabwe have also taken a leaf out of South Africa's book by hiring a Brazilian to take charge of their qualifying campaign. Jose Claudinei Georgini, 60, is better known as Valinhos, the name of the town where he was born. He has had several warm-up games to look over his players and is likely to put out a tough squad when Zimbabwe begin their FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign in Conakry away against a tough Guinea side.
Zimbabwe's most successful export is Benjani Mwaruwari and he has, predictably, been named captain for the qualifiers, taking over from another player who also competed in the top flight of English football, Peter Ndlovu. Mwaruwari plays at Manchester City in the Premier League and is among a growing number of Zimbabweans based at European clubs. Defender Dickson Choto and striker Takesure Chinyama just won the Polish Cup with Legia Warsaw and in Belgium, Vusmusi Nyoni of Cercel Brugge and Cephas Chimdeza (St Truiden) are making waves.
Zimbabwe's South African-based legion includes the hard-as-nails midfielder Edson Nyandoro and Tinashe Nengomasha, central defender Zyenyika Makonese and Gilbert Mushangazhike, back in the national side after returning from several years of anonymity in the Chinese league.
Zimbabwe's youth teams have also had regional success of late promising a good base for the future. But there is a more immediate priority on the horizon as the country does not want to sit on the sidelines and watch the FIFA World Cup party on their doorstep, without being part of the action.