HARARE – The Warriors make a return to the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) today, exactly 11 years after their last dance with the aristocrats of continental football.
While it is a refreshing achievement for Zimbabwe, who are ranked 103rd in the world and 29th in Africa, history tells us the team’s aptitude to compete with the best on the continent remains largely uncertain.
The last time the Warriors participated at the Afcon in 2004 and 2006 they were knocked out in the group stages.
Given the events that have characterised the team’s preparations ahead of the tournament opener against Algeria today, it looks certain history will repeat itself.
On paper, at least, the gulf in talent between Zimbabwe and the teams in Group B remains immense and the Warriors face a mammoth task if they are to leave a mark at the tournament.
Apart from the talent at their disposal, some of the top teams on the continent have immense financial resources at their disposal.
This is in sharp contrast to Zimbabwe where the Warriors always have to endure chaotic preparations each time due to lack of funds.
The Warriors, just before their departure for Cameroon boycotted a send-off dinner organised by the government inorder to get their allowance fees and match fees.
At one time, the team failed to train after Zifa failed to pay $60 to book the National Sports Stadium and provide fuel for the bus to ferry the players.
While this was all happening, countries like Ivory Coast were getting extra financial support from their government which approved a £5,1million budget for the team’s campaign in Gabon an increase of £507 000 from the last finals in Equatorial Guinea two years ago.
The Elephants had even the luxury of camping in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates where they also played a friendly international against Uganda.
Tunisia, who the Warriors will face in Libreville on January 23, held their training camp in Catalonia, Spain.
The Warriors will definitely start the tournament at a disadvantage and the technical team will have to use all the tricks to psyche their players and prepare them well mentally so as to get the best out of them.
In 2012, our neighbours Zambia built their successful Afcon campaign on the basis of sound financial support by their government.
Former Warriors fitness trainer Jerry Maguranyanga agrees.
“The biggest lie perpetuated in Zimbabwean sport is that you play for the love of the country and I don’t know what that means,” Maguranyanga said to the Daily News on Sunday.
“No one has ever explained to me what it means because in the rest of the world there is nothing like that. Patriotism; if you are a full-time athlete or sportsperson it does not put food on your table, it doesn’t pay school fees for your kids.
“It does not take you to hospital when you are sick, so patriotism is for the guys who are going to the war, that’s how I explained that. Khama Billiat can never eat patriotism and sport also comes with a risk of injury. I know players who went to the Afcon and when they came back they were never the same again because the competition at that level is massive.
“So the very first thing that people have to understand is that people don’t eat patriotism. Let me give an example Lionel Messi, Neymar and Ronaldo recently were in court over non-payment of tax money. But imagine these are players who are paid at the highest level of the game because they want to maximise.
Maguranyanga added: “This is why Lewis Hamilton doesn’t live in England, Roseberg doesn’t live in Germany but in Monaco instead, it’s because the taxes are far less there than they endure in their own countries. They want to maximise on their earnings as much as possible.
“Now you look at our own players, local for instance who do not have anything and you want them to play for nothing. This is actually an opportunity for their lives to change because we are the same people that will laugh at (Hardlife) Zvirekwi 10 years down the line when he has nothing to show.”
Algeria and Senegal, who are Zimbabwe’s Group B rivals, together with Tunisia, have several players plying their trade in the English Premiership and French top-flight league among other top leagues and are favourites to advance to the knock-out stages.
Zimbabwe will come up against big reputations, especially in the English Premier League stars such as Liverpool and Senegal striker, Sadio Mane, his captain, Cheikou Kouyate, who plays for West Ham, as well as the Leicester duo of Riyad Mahrez and forward Islam Slimani.
Maguranyanga: “How do you go into a tournament like this without a contract? They should have signed the contract the first day they started camp.
“The fact of the matter is that our players and coaches are going to be star-stricken. It always happens and we cannot run away from that.”
Maguranyanga, however, feels the Warriors’ biggest assert in Gabon will be coach Kalisto Pasuwa’s experience.
“Our chances are slim but the only good thing is that we have got nothing to lose. And the trump card that Zimbabwe also has is Pasuwa,” he said.
Former Dynamos midfielder Memory Mucherahohwa expects the Warriors to give a good show.
“Zimbabwe this time is going to do wonders. I can see a bunch of good players in that team the likes of Musona, Nhamoinesu, Billiat and many more,” he said.
“They shouldn’t be intimidated by any team. I know things haven’t been well but according to me (Philip) Chiyangwa is doing his best to make sure everything is well. So I tip them to go further.
“Football has changed, there are no underdogs anymore we are just as good as them it’s only that we seem to give too much respect to other countries. We only need to do what we can do without fear or feeling intimidated.”
Former Warriors captain Ephraim Chawanda feels despite all that has happened, everyone now needs to rally behind the team in Gabon.
“We should not be a nation of critics, what our Warriors, especially coach Pasuwa and his technical team, need is our patriotic support,” Chawanda said.
“There is a conflict of interest in our football leadership, as we are aware that some individuals are motivated to use the Afcon as a stage to market players who they represent as agents; that is putting self-interest before that of the nation.
“We hope our players will go out there to play for their names, then their families and us as a nation. Our biggest hurdle is Algeria, not as a giant, but as our first game, that will show our intentions regarding the tournament.”
Former Warriors defender Thulani Ncube, who is now based in US, is backing the team to go far.
“I think we have a good talented team but it’s gonna be up to the players how badly they want it, about the players where they play I think if most of our boys play well in this tournament they can end up playing in Europe,” Ncube said.