Just over a year ago, Zimbabwe international Rudo Neshamba took a hard look at her football career and did not like what she saw. She decided to enrol in a two-year journalism course at a college in Harare, and she continues to work on that goal, but the 24-year-old now has a more dramatic task at hand: helping the Mighty Warriors make an impact at the Women's Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016.
Neshamba and the southern Africans were shock qualifiers for the finals, and the draw did them no favours – pitting them against 2012 bronze medallists Canada, two-time world champions Germany and a rapidly-improving Australia. But befitting her other life as a storyteller, Neshamba realises that Zimbabwe's outsider status should help them work their way into the event.
“Of course it is a tough group, and we will not be the favourites to advance to the next round,” she admitted to FIFA.com. "But I think that leaves the pressure on the other sides. We are the underdogs, and all our opponents will be expected to beat us. That should allow us to play without pressure and approach our matches as we normally do, while they might underestimate us.”
Dramatic qualifying campaign
A fourth-place finish in the 2000 CAF Africa Women's Cup of Nations is considered the high point of achievement for Zimbabwe's national team. So being one of two qualifiers for Rio 2016 – along with neighbours South Africa – was indeed a shock, but they proved themselves a team of fate in qualifying.
After receiving a bye into the second round, Zimbabwe played southern African rivals Zambia and it was the Bulawayo-born striker who scored the all-important away goal in the 2-1 defeat. A 1-0 victory in the return leg, saw the team advance to the third round, where they faced Côte d'Ivoire. After failing to travel to West Africa for the away leg, the match was awarded 3-0 to Côte d'Ivoire, who in turn did not travel to Zimbabwe for their away game. The match was re-scheduled, but Côte d'Ivoire withdrew from the competition, giving Zimbabwe a place in the final round.
I am incredibly proud to help my country achieve this dream. The victory was celebrated throughout Zimbabwe, and we can feel that the whole country is behind the team.
There they faced 2012 Olympic participants Cameroon and again it was Neshamba who proved to be the match-winner. She gave her side the lead in Yaounde and although French-based Madeleine Ngono Mani scored twice to give Cameroon the 2-1 victory, Zimbabwe had the chance to turn things around in Harare. There too, Neshamba did the damage, as her eighth minute goal was what separated the two teams in the end and ensured a first-ever trip to the Olympics for the Mighty Warriors.
Neshamba says that the team did not consider themselves realistic contenders until late in the process but that the country's response has been a thrill. “It was only after our first leg game in Cameroon that we believed we had a chance. Then we actually thought that we would make it.
“I am incredibly proud to help my country achieve this dream. The victory was celebrated throughout Zimbabwe, and we can feel that the whole country is behind the team.”
A further education, on and off the pitch
When Zimbabwe kick-off their Brazilian adventure against Germany on 3 August in Sao Paulo, few will expect them to escape the group stage, but Neshamba knows that the event can only help female football in the country. “Qualifying for the Olympics is a big thing for the whole country and officials are making sure that we will have the best preparations possible. It is then up to us to produce the goods on the pitch.”
But no matter what happens, Neshamba has no plans to give up her studies. “At the beginning of last year, I looked at my football career and at the things I had achieved. I had a number of medals, and I had seen quite a bit of the world, but I was not in a position to earn a living from playing football in Zimbabwe.”
A talented footballer from an early age, Neshamba won her first cap in 2008 and decided not to continue her education despite achieving good results in her final school exams. She says it's a mistake she will not make again. “I did not think at the time of continuing with my studies and combining that with football. Maybe it was due to the excitement of representing my country, but I think that was a very poor decision on my part and one that I did not want to repeat.
“I will be writing my exams this year and then have some more exams next year before finishing the course.”