THE last time I was in Conakry with the Warriors, Valinhos was the coach and Benjani the captain and — after 90 minutes — we celebrated that we had dared to take our hunt into the Elephants’ heartland, and emerged unharmed.
That was seven years ago and, having joined the boys on their team bus back to our hotel on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, the singing just could not stop.
One of the songs, pregnant with both emotion and determination, has remained embedded in my memory bank.
David Kutyauripo was the lead singer.
The big boys in the team provided the bassline, the small boys provided the tenor, it was a very simple song but the lyrics were full of meaning.
“Baba, Oh Baba
Baba, Oh Baba
Nyangwe Zvikaoma Sei
Baba, Oh Baba
The lyrics spoke about their unity, their commitment, their determination to defy the odds and the need for them to focus on their massive assignment and, in that wave of happiness, we all felt the magic that comes with securing a very good result.
We were all incredibly happy that this troop of Warriors had come to Conakry — not the easiest place to go and play football against the hosts, and battled long, and hard, for a draw and a point that carried its weight in gold.
Along the narrow streets of the Guinea capital, some of the residents of Conakry lined up to even cheer at us, charmed by the way we had taken on their Elephants, toe-to-toe, in a battle that was as bruising as it was captivating, where neither side gave an inch, which fittingly ended in a draw.
Even though they tried hard not to show it, the older generation of Guinea fans on those streets, appeared charmed by the progress that we had made, from a team that slumped to a 0-3 defeat in the same city, mesmerised by the skill and strength of Titi Camara at his very best, in 1993, to one that was now good enough to take them the full distance with the duel ending in a draw.
At the hotel, there was disappointment among our hosts, that their team had failed to get their campaign off to a flying start with a victory, but there was also appreciation that our boys had put in a shift that deserved to be praised and whose gallant efforts were worthy the point they were now taking on the long flight back to Harare.
Yesterday, as Guinea flew into Harare for their latest duel against the Warriors, memories of that showdown in Conakry between the two teams, where we left with our heads held high, came flooding back into my mind.
The pride that swept through my body, once the referee called time on that match, the joy that I could detect in the eyes of everyone who was part of that travelling delegation, the happiness among the boys that they had gone into battle, in a tough foreign outpost, and served their country with distinction and made millions of their fans, back home, feel proud to be associated with them.
This appeared to be the start of something promising, a beautiful story that was being written by a group of men disappointed that we had missed the 2008 Nations Cup finals, after successive appearances in 2004 and 2006, and we all believed, the players believed and their fans, thousands of kilometres back home, also believed.
Of course, things didn’t turn out the way we had hoped, Guinea came here and forced a draw, Kenya came here and also forced a draw, and the Harambee Stars beat us in Nairobi while, for all the optimism provoked by our gallant performance in Conakry that day, we could only win one more game, beating Namibia 2-0 here.
Another Nations Cup had come and gone and, sadly, it wasn’t the only one.
We would fail again in the battles for the 2012 Nations Cup qualifiers, the 2013 Nations Cup qualifiers and, in the 2015 Nations Cup qualifiers, we even suffered the embarrassment of losing in the preliminary round, against Tanzania, long before the real football nations of this continent had entered the fray.
But, seven years after we rocked Guinea with both our performance and our songs, one gets the feeling that we now have a team that can end that barren spell, that fruitless search for a place back into the light after years of staggering in the darkness, and — ahead of another battle against the West Africans at Rufaro tomorrow — we are walking with a spring in our step.
The big question is, do we have anything to back the wave of optimism that has been sweeping across the country since that unforgettable June afternoon when our Warriors, having arrived in Blantyre just hours before their tie against Malawi, somehow found the power to extinguish the Flames and — just like those boys in Conakry in 2008 — produce a result, in the first round of the qualifiers, which cheered the spirits of the global football family?
Yes, our performance in Malawi was special, given everything that went on before that match, the fallout between the team and the game’s leadership, the punishing road trip that the boys took to Blantyre and the fact that they didn’t even have time to rest before they plunged into battle and, still, find a way to beat their hosts.
But, just like that one when we held Guinea to a draw in their backyard, it should be backed by consistency, by other results that show that we deserved it, that we are the ones who won the point, or points, and not that it’s our rivals who lost the point, or points, and that is why tomorrow’s game is a very key match.
GOOD TEAMS HAVE THE STAMINA TO LAST THE DISTANCE
For everything special that we did in Blantyre in June, young Tatenda Mukuruva producing a performance that made a mockery of his tender age between the posts, Khama Billiat finding his rhythm, in the second half when he was virtually unplayable down the left channel, and capping it all with a goal that won us the match, and cost Young Chimodzi his job, it will count for nothing if we can’t back it up with another victory tomorrow.
It will bring us back to square one, and crucially, bring a dangerous Guinea, who lost their first game against Swaziland on the neutral fields of Morocco, when most of their key Europe-based players turned their backs on national service, maybe because they felt the Swazis would be a walkover, back into contention.
You don’t qualify for the Nations Cup finals by producing one good result, whether at home or in foreign lands, but you do that by finding the consistency that separates men from the boys, the stamina to last the distance when others are falling by the wayside and the ability to keep getting the right results all the time.
Incredibly, there are some, among us, who already believe that the deal has been sealed and, after we defied all those odds in Blantyre, everything should just fall into place and, at the end of this campaign, we will all be celebrating another appearance at the Nations Cup finals.
Yes, there is no problem with optimism but we need to be careful not to lose focus and draw ourselves into this false sense of superiority where we now believe that every team that we meet is there to be beaten and, if we can win in Malawi given what we went through as a team, we should roll over everyone who comes into our backyard.
You can detect it, especially among our fans, that some believe it’s not a matter of whether we will win against Guinea tomorrow but how we are going to win that game, either with the style that Billiat can produce, or with the grit that someone like Malajila and Katsande can provide.
But football is not as easy as that and the wounded Elephants, having been mocked by the entire continent following their defeat by Swaziland in their last game, will come fighting long and hard, because they know that, if they lose this one, and they fall six points behind us, this could turn into Mission Impossible for them.
Callisto Pasuwa has been warning his men that they shouldn’t read anything into the result between Guinea and Swaziland because every game is different and if we needed any reminder that nothing can be taken for granted in this game today, the results in the English Premiership last weekend provided that confirmation.
A West Ham team, which had lost their last two league games at home, went to Anfield, where they had not won a league game since that year when some gentlemen in Mbare decided to form their team called Dynamos, way back in 1963, unaware that what they were creating would transform itself into the dominant football club that this country has ever seen, or might ever see, somehow beating the Reds 3-0 in their backyard.
Crystal Palace, with a coach plucked from heaven, marching into Stamford Bridge, the home of the champions of England, and pinching all three points against a shell-shocked Mourinho and his West London aristocrats.
Bafetimbi Gomis, if you don’t know him by now, that boy with that scary celebration style, scarring a hopeless, if not useless, coach called LVG into his shell, and reminding him that the football that gave him his profile, 20 years ago, is no consigned to the archives, as Swansea — with a big helping hand from Andre Ayew — beating Manchester United in Wales.
Yes, we have a golden chance to consolidate our good position tomorrow but Pasuwa is also right to say that, unlike when he took his men to Malawi on that chaotic trip, where his two-in-our blanket became so fashionable it turned into a Twitter hit, the pressure is on us and, with Rufaro expected to be full to capacity, that comes with a number of challenges.
We have the momentum but Guinea have the pedigree and I was there in Conakry, seven years ago, when we all thought that we had finished them off, with that draw in their backyard, before they regrouped and ended up qualifying while our campaign skidded off the rails.
PROUD THAT THESE BOYS ARE MY FELLOW COUNTRYMEN
Knowledge Musona returns to the ground where, of course you know it, he carried all our hopes on his shoulders and refused to let the punishing weight distract him as he scored twice to carry us to that victory over Mali, another West African nation, in the 2012 Nations Cup qualifiers.
After two years where he has struggled to find a home that provides the comforts he needs to thrive in Europe, the Smiling Assassin is firing again, on all cylinders, and arrives for this assignment as the leading goal-scorer in Belgium.
Nyasha Mushekwi, back in those colours after five years, returns after giving Sweden a dosage of his goal-scoring instincts, which they are unlikely to forget in a hurry, and was second in the Golden Boot race by the time the people at Mamelodi Sundowns, who seem intent on destroying his career, took him back into their ranks.
Matthew Rusike has just scored twice in Sweden and looks physically imposing, like a young Critiano Ronaldo, he can take on those tough West Africans, in a physical battle, and win the contest.
Then, of course, there is Khamaldinho, at first sight so innocent he cannot even frighten a church mouse, so tiny he won’t strike fear into the opponents, so baby-faced he looks like a lost schoolboy being thrown into battles that will destroy him forever.
That is, until, he parades his full range of skills and, as the Flames noted in June, the damage usually comes so quick, there is no time to react.
Yes, boys, get it from me, I’m proud that you are Zimbabweans, that I can call you my countrymen, I can call you my team, and go out there and express yourselves, for all the 14 million people who believe in you, who were born to support you on days like these.
To God Be The Glory!
Come on Warriors!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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