A GREEK TRAGEDY THAT WON’T GO AWAY . . . THEY CAME, THEY CHEERED AND THEY LOST . . .

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A GREEK TRAGEDY THAT WON’T GO AWAY . . . THEY CAME, THEY CHEERED AND THEY LOST . . . RAW PATRIOTISM . . . some of the Zimbabwean fans who packed Harare sports club on Thursday, the biggest crowd to watch a local cricket match, cheering their Chevrons towards a place at the ICC Cricket World Cup only to be let down by the team. - ICC

The Herald

Sharuko on Saturday
FOR me, it was like July 25, ’93 being replayed before my eyes all over again, reliving that nightmare, enduring that pain, the agony and shame that came with failure and the sheer weight of disappointment that came with seeing a dream being crushed in such ruthless fashion.

The darkness where, just a few hours earlier, there had been light, the emptiness where, just moments earlier there had been so much promise, the hopelessness where just moments earlier there had been so much hope.

The sadness where just a few hours earlier there had been a lot of happiness, the sorrow where just moments earlier there had been a lot of joy, the tears where just moments earlier there had been a lot of smiling faces.

The sheer dejection where just a few hours earlier there had been so much elation, the gloom where just moments earlier there had been a lot of colour, the heartbreak where just a few hours earlier there was so much love.

The bitter cold where just moments earlier there had been a lot of warmth, a summer that had quickly been replaced by a severe winter, a beach of gold that had been swept away by a raging tide which had destroyed the treasure that, only moments earlier was within our reach.

A desert where just a few hours earlier there was an oasis, a fountain of life, a raging ocean where just a few moments earlier stood a beautiful tropical island, hell where just moments earlier, there was heaven and everything good that comes with walking into its gates.

Ugliness where just a few hours light, there was beauty, betrayal where just moments earlier there was trust, weeping where just moments earlier there was laughter, so much pain and so little to gain anymore, an ending where, just hours earlier, a beginning was unfolding.

Where we had been having a party, a nation on the verge of celebrating a milestone achievement, all that remained was an ocean of tears — a flood of questions which never got any answers and united in our sadness, we staggered out the stadium like a pack of zombies, like the walking dead.

Our emotions exploding with rage, united in our hour of grief, walking side by side, a mass of humanity leaving a place they called the theatre of their dreams, but where they had been shown a horror movie that was tormenting the soul of everyone flocking now out of that cathedral.

A people united by their pain, everyone with so many questions, everyone with so few answers — the young, including the school kids, having long lost the energy which had been fuelling their noisy chants as they sang for the cause of their nation, their faces having lost the sparkle that was there in the afternoon.

The old, including some who had lost their voices in the singing, trying to make sense of it all, burdened by the weight of the cruel events which they had watched from their front-row seats, dazed by failure when success had appeared to be within touching distance.

So many questions, yet so few answers.

This human wave, a defeated and retreating army of broken hearts, a boulevard of shattered dreams, walking away from the shame, from the wreckage, all our spirits having long been destroyed by this game, betrayed by a group of guys in whom we had invested a lot of trust, let down by a poor call to field, rather than bat, by a captain who lost the plot when it mattered the most and made a shocking decision that will forever haunt him.

Conned, along the way, by a freak thunderstorm, which only three months ago we were praying for, but which this time destroyed our hopes, and a hostile Duckworth Lewis method whose calculations from hell ensured we were asked to climb Mount Everest where our opponents had been asked to climb an ant hill.

Humiliated in our backyard by a band of rag-tag amateurs from the United Arab Emirates with nothing, but just their pride to play for, the ultimate party spoilers whom the world had dismissed, before this contest, as hopeless and who looked just like lambs being driven into the slaughter chamber.

About three hours after the disaster at Harare Sports Club, we were still standing outside the ground with a colleague Mike Mwale, a passionate cricket fan in that darkness, asking questions which never brought any answers, trying to make sense of it all, but finding no refugee, wondering why this always happens to us.

A Cricket World Cup place that was there for the taking, presented to us on a silver platter — just beat UAE in our backyard and you get your ticket to glory and what do we do, fluff it just like that, before the biggest crowd to watch a cricket match in the game’s history in this country.

IT WAS KALUSHA BWALYA ALL OVER AGAIN AND ALL ITS PAIN

For me, it was like a journey back into time, to that July 25, 1993, day when — as a rookie journalist on this sports desk — I joined 60 000 of my expectant countrymen and women at the National Sports Stadium for what had been billed as our football’s finest hour.

The coming of age of our Dream Team which had given us hope to end 13 years of the heartbreak that came with failure to qualify for the Nations Cup finals with the missions usually being doomed at the final hurdle, the springing to life of a giant that had been sleeping throughout the ‘80s and which, thanks to German efficiency provided by its coach, had found a way to punch according to its weight.

A team which had developed an allergy to defeat, built on a solid foundation of a punishing defence that could be trusted even the Pharaohs of Egypt could not break it in a World Cup qualifier on the neutral fields of Lyon, France, a tigerish midfield that took no prisoners and a reliable strike force which usually struck when it mattered most.

Fabisch had not built a side to charm those who believe in the tiki-taka approach, there was no romantic expression to the way his men played their football, there was a certain rigidity that made them, at times, unbearable to watch and to describe their play as beautiful would be an insult to the word ugly.

But what they didn’t give you in beauty, romance and all that stuff, boy oh boy, they provided you in results, big results against big teams on this continent, a reliability that was intoxicating and a system which was effective and brutally functional.

From getting everything underway with a 4-1 pounding of Bafana Bafana, beating Togo home and away, slaying the Pharaohs in Harare and forcing a replay in Lyon, beating Angola and holding Zambia in Lusaka, the Dream Team had answered all questions thrown at them with distinction.

And now, all that stood between them and a place at the AFCON finals, for the first time was just a victory over the very Zambians they had held in their backyard in Lusaka.

Given that Zambia was reeling from the tragic loss of the majority of their star players, who perished in that plane crash off the coast of Gabon in April ’93, while flying to a World Cup qualifier in Senegal, the general expectation was that the Dream Team would not only win, but do that comfortably.

And everything was going according to plan when Henry “Bully” McKop gave us the lead in the 28th minute of a first-half that we dominated and such was our dominance that day, we even hit the post as we kept pouring forward.

When the clock reached the 80th mark, it meant our famed defence with a reputation for giving nothing away, only had just 10 minutes to repel the little the Zambians were throwing at us and we would be on our way to the Promised Land.

Then, out of the blue, we conceded a free-kick, the ball was swung into our box and Kalusha Bwalya’s head got a touch to the ball, ahead of Norman Mapeza and directed it into the nets leaving Bruce Grobbelaar a beaten man — 1-1 with just 10 minutes left.

For all his brilliance on the pitch, in which he stands tall as probably the greatest footballer to come out of Southern Africa — which is supported by the fact he is the only one from this region to have received the African Footballer of the Year — Kalusha had never scored a goal for his country with his head.

He wasn’t someone who was known for his heading strength, but on that defining moment and on that day, July 25, 1993 of all days at the National Sports Stadium, he somehow came good with his head and shattered our dreams to qualify for the 1994 Nations Cup finals given that a draw suited the Zambians better than us.

A Dream Team unbeaten in their six AFCON qualifiers that year, which included points gained in South Africa and Zambia had to settle for second place just a point behind the Zambians who not only went to Tunisia, but distinguished themselves there to reach the final where they lost to Nigeria.

If those Zambians were good enough to reach the AFCON final when they had failed to beat us home and away in the qualifiers and needed a rare late Kalusha header to eliminate us from the party one can only wonder what our boys would have done in Tunisia.

But we never made it and as we trooped out of the giant stadium that day after our draw against the Zambians, the depression that I saw on the faces of thousands of Zimbabweans was something close to what I saw at Harare Sports Club on Thursday.

THE GREEK TRAGEDY THAT CONTINUES TO STALK US

I have written extensively about the Greek Tragedy that appears to continue to stalk our sport where something, which ends up destroying our dreams, always happens.

Like that freak thunderstorm in Harare on Thursday which changed everything and complicated our chase where we now needed to get 230 in 40 overs while our opponents had scored 235 /7 in 47.5 overs, giving them 47 extra balls to play with.

Like Cremer’s shocking decision to choose to field when batting the opposition into submission in the fine conditions of the morning before the rains came would and should have been the option to take after we won the toss given Duckworth Lewis is hostile to the chasing team and the outfield would have slowed from the rains.

Like Solomon Mire and Hamilton Masakadza’s decision to commit suicide when there was a lot of movement off the surface, like Brendan Taylor somehow having to be the one who gets the delivery of the entire tournament that bowled him in the game that mattered the most and like Sean Williams being troubled by cramp and then deciding to go for the boundaries at a crucial phase of the game.

Like Cephas Zhuwao being dropped against the minnows when his power hitting would have come handy in this match, like Ervine being dropped down the order when we knew he couldn’t finish off the innings when push came to shove.

Don’t just look at Thursday’s game in isolation, but look at Raza’s dismissal to a no-ball by Jason Holder against the Windies which the TV umpire somehow ruled against us when his presence on the crease would have made the difference between 289 and 320 in a match where a victory for us would have been a ticket to the World Cup.

Or Williams being dismissed at the boundary in that game against the Irish that knocked us out of the last World Cup when he appeared to have scored a six.

And, as I drove home on Thursday night, the questions kept flooding in — how do we explain that Joel Luphahla’s perfect strike in the Egyptian city of Ismailia which should have taken us into the quarter-finals of the 2006 Nations Cup finals after giving us a 3-1 win over a World Cup-bound Ghana was somehow disallowed for reasons that even up to now no one can explain?

“We are very disappointed. We could have qualified, but we were unlucky. We tried to score the third goal,” then Warriors coach Charles Mhlauri said.

“The referee disallowed one and if we had been on the scoreboard, I don’t think they would have scored and we would have gone through.”

What about our ’96 Nations Cup campaign which got off to a flying start when we thrashed Lesotho 5-0 here, the same Lesotho which beat Cameroon 2-0 in Maseru, edged the DRC 2-1, thrashed Cameroon 4-1, with Vitalis scoring a hat-trick and then beat Lesotho 2-0 in their backyard and just when we seemed set for the finals, the Greek Tragedy struck.

Lesotho withdrew from the qualifiers and our two victories over them, including seven goals were nullified just like that and Cameroon — who had lost in Maseru — benefited immensely from all this.

Two years later we hammer Sudan 3-0 in their backyard in Khartoum, with Bruce Grobbelaar in charge of our Warriors, in the first game of our ’98 AFCON and we all begin to believe that, if we can pick such priceless three points on the road, we are in a good position to qualify.

But then, boom, it all explodes in our face as Sudan withdraw from the qualifiers and our victory there is nullified because a team that we have beaten has pulled out of the battle.

Show me a national football team that has ever been banned from playing in the World Cup qualifiers, who are not the Warriors, because they didn’t pay their national coach and I will stop believing in this Greek Tragedy that continues to stalk our teams?

I was there, in April 1993, when the blue-torch paper that consumed the Dream Team was lit and 25 years later, I can see it all happening again and maybe I’m just seeing ghosts and if that is the case, I ask for your forgiveness, but I don’t blame anyone, it’s just the way it is.

Someone said it’s maybe the derogatory songs we sing in the stands, to try and inspire our players, as was the case at Harare Sports Club on Thursday while our opponents, like Afghanistan, never stop praying that makes a difference.

To God Be The Glory

Come on Warriors!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Khamaldinhoooooooooooooooo!

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Chat with me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter @Chakariboy, interact with me on Viber or read my material in The Southern Times or on www.sportszone.co.zw. You can also interact with me on the informative ZBC weekly television football magazine programme, Game Plan, where I join the legendary Charles “CNN” Mabika and producer Craig “Master Craig’’ Katsande every Monday night at 21.15pm.

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