Zimbabwe recover warrior spirit
© AFP

The heady days of 2006 seem a long way off now, when Cephas Chimedza and Benjani Mwaruwari, Zimbabwe’s pair of Europe-based stars, inspired the team to a memorable 2-1 victory against Ghana at the CAF African Cup of Nations in Egypt. Since then, the country has endured major political upheaval not to mention economic strife. This stagnation also spread to the football field, where the national team dropped from 40th to 131st place in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking within just four years.

But after a seemingly endless downward spiral, the Warriors are rising again. They climbed up to 108th spot in November’s list, their biggest monthly advance since the rankings system began.

Recent performances by Misheck Chidzambwa’s men have been reassuring and have rekindled the optimism created by their qualifying campaign for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. The Warriors have enjoyed some good friendly results, beating Mauritius, Botswana and, most impressively, Zambia. The victories have helped put a smile back on Zimbabwean faces, given that their last success in a competitive match came in the 2-0 win over Namibia on 8 June 2008, in the second round of African qualifying matches. A brace from Gilbert Mushangazhike that day sparked wild celebrations in Harare and set the whole country dreaming that Benjani and Co might go on to qualify for their first-ever world finals. Unfortunately, these hopes were to be shattered, as Zimbabwe failed to pick up another victory in the campaign.

Current stars and the next generation
"In Africa, we’re capable of beating just about anyone," said Wellington Nyatanga, President of the Zimbabwean Football Association, in 2008 after the group draw saw his nation placed in the same section as Guinea, Kenya and Namibia. A good start, during which four points were earned, was followed by the loss of precious points at home to Guinea and Kenya in the form of two scoreless draws. These setbacks, as well as defeats in Nairobi and Windhoek, not only put paid to their hopes of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup, but for the African Cup of Nations as well.

In Africa, we’re capable of beating just about anyone.
Zimbabwe FA chief Wellington Nyatanga

Jose Valinhos’ tenure may have come to an end, but the Brazilian coach made sure to leave his successor some effective tools to work with. What is undeniable, however, is that when Benjani and Chimedza are not at the top of their game – as was the case during their six qualifying matches – Zimbabwe struggle to score goals, notching up just four this time around. For all that, the shoots of recovery are visible, most notably in the shape of Philip Marufu, the revelation of the inaugural 2009 African Championship of Nations. The team’s main offensive weapon during the tournament, the Dynamos striker twice found the back of the net in the three group matches, against Ghana (2-2) and then DR Congo (1-1).

With the tournament reserved for home-based players, stars such as Benjani and Chimedza, who ply their trade in Europe, were notable absentees. The remainder of the squad mostly play in the domestic league or in South Africa, like Mushangazhike. This lack of experience at the highest level, so crucial for qualifying for major tournaments, could explain the Warriors’ failure to reach the finals of a FIFA World Cup, even though the team is brimming with individual talent.

Great hope
It should not be overlooked that up until quite recently Zimbabwe were considered as the great hope of African football, having taken part in the African Cup of Nations in 2004 and 2006. In 1994, they were close to getting their hands on an even greater prize, as qualification for the FIFA World Cup in the USA slipped from their grasp. In the final round, expectations soared after a win over Cameroon in Harare, but their fate was sealed by a 3-1 defeat against the same opponent in their final group match.

Following a decade in the international wilderness, confidence returned after the 2004 African Cup of Nations, and a good start to their 2006 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign. And while elimination in the second round of qualifying for South Africa 2010 ended their dream of reaching the showpiece event, they have finally begun to put together a satisfying run of results. The consequent improvement in their ranking position has given a much-needed boost to Zimbabwean morale – and good morale is a quality all warriors need to overcome great challenges.