Zimbabwe have long had the tag of nearly men in continental competition. For almost two decades, they were consistently in and around the battles for qualification, without reaching a major tournament. Then came two back to-back appearances at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations finals in 2004 and 2006 before another plunge in their fortunes. For the last five years they have hovered just in or out of the top 100 on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
But powered by a big 3-1 win over Angola in Harare last month during 2013 Cup of Nations qualifying, the Warriors have climbed 17 places over the past two months and now sit at 89th in the world and 21st in the African Zone. And although they are improving their fortunes, 32-year-old captain Esrom Nyandoro insists that a place at the continental finals in neighbouring South Africa would signal a massive reversal in their fortunes.
“If we win it can change everything,” Nyandoro told FIFA.com. "We have a really great opportunity to unite the nation.” But going to Luanda to defend a precarious two goal lead this weekend will be no walk-over, and the skipper, as well as the coach, Rahman Gumbo, are warning that application and fortitude are necessary in large doses. “We are preparing ourselves for a tough physical and mental battle,” said Gumbo recently.
I think, to be honest, we can do it with a strong self belief but it must be considered a 50-50 chance.
The possibility of the finals has rather suddenly ensured a fevered enthusiasm across Zimbabwe. “It’s a great opportunity but it will be a tough game. It’s no easy ride, that’s for sure,” mused Nyandoro. “The (humid) weather will be tough and they have a big imposing stadium. Angola are a great team, and we were perhaps a little lucky to come away with a 3-1 win.”
Nyandoro, who played in both of Zimbabwe’s two previous Cup of Nations finals outings, was recently restored to the side and seeks to temper any wild predictions of victory. “I think, to be honest, we can do it with a strong self belief but it must be considered a 50-50 chance. We have an advantage, now it’s a matter of holding onto that 3-1 lead.”
A mixture of the new and old
A boost for Zimbabweans is the return from injury of Knowledge Musona, the only Zimbabwe international who competes in a major European league. He helped struggling FC Augsburg to a first-ever Bundesliga league win of the season last Friday. Also back, after missing the first leg of the final round tie, is midfield dynamo Tinashe Nengomasha, also a veteran of Zimbabwe’s two previous Cup of Nations finals appearances. Now 30, he still patrols the midfield with a dogged purpose.
However, a new generation of players is catching the eye, notably the outrageous talent of Khama Billiat. The Ajax Cape Town striker was the hero of the first leg win in Harare and has the perfect forum in which to confirm his reputation in Luanda. “Zimbabweans are footballing mad again,” says Nyandoro, who had been rejected by previous coach Norman Mapeza, but was recalled when Gumbo took over. “I sat down with Rahman, and he asked me to guide the youth. I agreed and I get a sense they appreciate my presence. I was about to give up on the national team but now I have a great sense of personal pride.”