Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor
ZIMBABWE’S Warriors will try to banish the ghost which has stalked them for more than half-a-dozen years in which they have failed to win the opening game on three previous attempts at the CHAN finals, when the latest Battle of Zambezi explodes on the shores of Lake Kivu, in Rwanda, this afternoon.
Callisto Pasuwa steps into Umuganda Stadium in Gisenyi today leading his Warriors, in a showdown against eternal rivals Zambia, hoping to triumph where his predecessors — the legendary Sunday Chidzambwa (2009), Madinda Ndlovu (2011) and Ian Gorowa (2014) — stumbled as they failed to get their CHAN finals’ campaign off to a winning start.
Gisenyi, Rwanda’s biggest beach and resort city on the shores of Lake Kivu, one of Africa’s Great Lakes, just across the border from the Congolese city of Goma, provides the scenic setting for the Warriors’ latest duel against plucky neighbours Chipolopolo as Group D of the 2016 CHAN finals roars into life.
Rwanda’s taming of Lake Kivu, from a time bomb with the potential of a limnic eruption, a rare natural disaster in which dissolved carbon dioxide erupts from the depths of the lake and destroys wildlife and kills humans and animals, by taping the gases in a project that is providing power around the country, should provide inspiration to Pasuwa and his men that they, too, can write a success story.
From the darkness of being the lake where some victims of the Rwanda genocide were dumped, to fears that it could wipe out all the life in surrounding area, in the event of a limnic explosion that could destroy more than two million people who live on its shores, the conversion of the dangerous gases under the fresh waters of Lake Kivu into a source of power for the Rwandans, has been inspirational.
And, for Pasuwa and his men, who have battled the adversity that has come through a raft of injuries to key personnel, including ruling out inspirational skipper Danny Phiri from this adventure, and the failure by their leaders to organise even a friendly match for them, need such inspirational tales in their battle to make a mark in Rwanda.
They are not the first group of Warriors who find themselves based in an area, with a very dark past, in their CHAN adventure and hoping to use the power of the beautiful game to illuminate the local landscape and, also, to cheer the spirits of those back home.
Seven years ago, in the Ivorian city of Bouake, still bearing the scars of having been the rebel stronghold during the country’s brutal civil war, Chidzambwa and his Warriors were given a base to launch their quest for honours at the inaugural CHAN finals.
And, in 36 minutes of their first game against Ghana, those Warriors set the stage alight as they led 2-0 through goals by Ovidy Karuru, who would make a huge impression that would open the doors for his adventure in French football, and speed merchant Phillip Marufu.
But, the home-based Black Stars roared back into the game, and a brace by Abdul Rahim Ayew, the son of Ghanaian legend Abedi Pele, broke the Warriors’ resistance and by the end of an engrossing battle, the spoils had been shared in a four-goal thriller that illuminated Bouake.
A 1-1 draw against eventual champions, DRC, with Marufu on target again, and a goalless draw against Libya meant that those Warriors were undefeated in Group B, which provided the two finalists with the Congolese beating Ghana for the crown, but the three points proved inadequate to take them into the semi-finals during an era when only eight teams competed at the CHAN finals.
Two years later, the Warriors arrived at the CHAN finals in Sudan, under the guidance of Madinda and, just like in Cote d’Ivoire in 2009, they also failed to win their first group game, beaten 0-1 by Niger after conceding a late 76th minute goal in Wad Medani.
There was redemption, in their second game, when a goal by Archford Gutu powered the Warriors to a 1-0 win over Ghana but, a 0-2 defeat in the final group tie against South Africa, destroyed their hopes of qualifying for the quarter-finals.
Two years ago, in their third straight appearance at the CHAN finals, the Warriors — now under the guidance of Gorowa — once again failed to win their first group game, with their opening tie against Morocco ending goalless in Cape Town, before they followed that up with another goalless tie against Uganda.
However, Masimba Mambare’s header powered them to a priceless 1-0 win over Burkina Faso and, in a tight group, this was enough to take the Warriors into the quarter-finals where they beat Mali 2-1 before losing a penalty shoot-out, in the semi-finals, against eventual champions Libya.
Can Pasuwa and his 2016 Class of Warriors break that hoodoo with an opening game victory, for the first time in their CHAN finals adventure, when they take on Zambia today in the first of three tough hurdles, in the Group of Death, which they need to clear in Gisenyi?
The Zimbabwe coach, who was Gorowa’s assistant during that memorable run in South Africa two years ago, has challenged his troops not to be intimidated by the opposition, who included veterans Isaac Chansa and Nations Cup-winning skipper Chris Katongo in their squad, or read too much into how they prepared for this tournament, including a training camp in South Africa and friendly international against Angola.
Pasuwa is qualified to make such comments because, after all, he was part of the Warriors’ technical team when they went to Zambia in August 2013 and made history as the first team to beat Chipolopolo in an international match in their Ndola fortress, since 1968 as the Warriors staged a spectacular smash-and-grab raid to win 1-0 and qualify for the 2014 CHAN finals in South Africa.
That Chipolopolo team was under the guidance of a French coaching crew who used to pocket about $100 000 a month in salaries and other perks, which was in sharp contrast to Gorowa and Pasuwa, who were unpaid for months.
The Zambians appear determined to make a huge impact at this tournament.
“We have young players and experienced players and we have a balanced team, that is how it should be,” Katongo told SuperSport ahead of today’s showdown.
“There is no easy group, no easy game. What is important is to work hard. If we work hard we can achieve something. I think I have something to contribute to the team and I’m happy to be back.”
Zambian football legend Kalusha Bwalya, who is the country’s football leader, emphasised the importance of winning today’s game.
“The importance of the first game cannot be over emphasised. I am optimistic we will have a good tournament. We have prepared well for the tournament and we are hoping for the best,” he told The Daily Mail of Zambia.
“There is positive energy coming from the team, the players are happy and I am happy with the leadership role Chris has taken.
“He is showing that he is a leader and there is unity in camp.”