Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor
IT might just have been a dead rubber, with only pride at stake, but the Warriors’ 2016 CHAN finals swansong match in Rwanda on Wednesday turned into an exhibition, and celebration, of the beauty of the football talent which the domestic Premiership regularly unleashes.
In that darkness of a doomed campaign, a failed invasion in search of greatness that had been repelled at the very first hurdle, and the punishing weight of a nation searching for answers, some of the Warriors provided a rainbow of light with superb displays that caught the eye.
And left us asking the question — what if?
What if they had all played in the first game against Zambia, where the Warriors went down 0-1 to their northern neighbours, when the combination of a fatal lapse in concentration on the left channel of our defence, after a delivery from a dead ball caught us napping, made all the difference?
What if they had all played in the second game against Mali, where the Warriors went down 0-1 to the West Africans, when the combination of a fatal lapse in concentration on the left side of our defence, after a delivery from a set-piece caught us ball watching, made all the difference?
What if one of them, probably the most impressive of the lot, had been given the freedom to run our midfield, from the first game against Zambia, rather than be wasted on the bench in the first two matches, only to be unleashed in the dead rubber against Uganda?
What’s the possibility that he would have provided not only the balance, which our team appeared to lack in the first two matches, but also the midfield creativity that was non-existent in those battles against Zambia and Mali, the missing link of the jigsaw puzzle?
In a tournament where our coach repeatedly said that the inexperience of the players that he threw into the fray cost us dearly, didn’t it make sense that a man with the experience of having played at this level of the game, five years ago when he was prematurely being hailed as the next best thing in Zimbabwe football, would have come handy and made a difference?
So many questions, very few answers.
Joel Ngodzo, a leaner, hungrier and fitter Josta, not that caricature of a hopeless out-of-shape heavyweight wrestler who was off-loaded by FC Platinum and turned into the subject of some sick joke on his homecoming adventure at Highlanders, desperate to make up for lost time.
Tatenda Mukuruva, an inspired, athletic and focused athlete, not that error-prone ‘keeper, probably intoxicated by the publicity and plaudits that he had received in his breakthrough season in the domestic Premiership, who produced a stinker as the Young Warriors were humbled 0-3 by their South African counterparts in the final African Under-23 Championship qualifier, desperate to make a big statement.
William Manondo, a rampaging bull down the right channel of our attack, valuing the importance of keeping his position and role in our attack, and defence as and when duty called either side of the field, not that zombie whose lack of confidence froze him when it mattered most, after finding himself in acres of space alone in the penalty area against Mali, desperate to make a difference.
Bruce Kangwa, a bundle of energy down the problematic left side of our defensive shield, placing as much emphasis on his defensive duties as on his attacking role, as and when duty demanded, and barely putting a foot wrong in his service for his country, desperate — too — to make up for lost time.
Nqobizita Masuku, the one with the coloured hair, the one to break down the waves of attacks of the Ugandans, the one always in the thick of things, the one who kept playing a simple but effective game as the shield of the defence, the one who felt sank to his knees when the Cranes scored that late dramatic equaliser, remaining slumped on the ground, as he cursed fate, cruel fate.
Stephen Makatuka, the gentle giant in that defence, never one to be stylish, always one to be effective, a man who understands his limitations but works very hard to mask them, and there he was again, animated at times as he rallied his teammates, never one to accept defeat, always one to give it all that he has.
Mukuruva was the star of the show, by a country mile, and that the CAF experts decided to give the man-of-the-match award to Manondo was one of those things that happen in football, but — for such a young man — the youngest member of the squad, to turn on such a blinding show between the posts, for such a diminutive frame to spring himself into an aerial authority, was the stuff that great goalkeepers are made of.
If he had done it once, that super save when he flung himself into the air to turn a powerful header over the bar in the first half, we would have thought it was a fluke but he kept doing it, producing save after save, unbeatable in the air, and brilliant on the ground, including a courageous dive onto the feet of a Ugandan forward that produced another fine save.
And, for a while, he took us back memory lane, to that afternoon in Blantyre, when his heroics was the difference between us winning, and probably losing, our opening 2017 Nations Cup qualifier.
But, maybe, we expected Mukuruva, dropped from the first game, to come good.
What we didn’t expect, probably, was that Josta would play as well as he did, with the authority that we used to see during his initial spell at Highlanders before a wrong move, and a wrong lifestyle, combined to turn him from one who had so much promise, to one who had flattered to deceive.
Experts, who said that his talent was too good to be destroyed so early in his life, kept believing in him and last year, the people at CAPS United decided to work on him, first bringing down his weight to that of an athlete and then giving him the freedom to play the game at his pace.
And, suddenly, he appears to be the creative hub that the Warriors have been searching for, with one defence splitting pass to release Ronaldo Chitiyo on Wednesday, a throwback to the days when Ronald “Gidiza” Sibanda was our main man in that role.
Maybe, if he had been thrown earlier into the battles, things could have been different.
Maybe, just maybe, but we will never know.