Charles Mabika Special Correspondent—
AS the Warriors prepare to face Senegal — the 2017 AFCON pre-tournament favourites and continent’s top ranked side — they will know that a win will extend their impressive record over the two previous Zimbabwean finalists — in 2004 and 2006 — after Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Algeria.
Both the 2004 and 2006 local sides crashed to defeats in their first matches with Sunday Chidzambwa’s men falling 1-2 to Egypt and Charles Mlauri’s outfit falling 0-2 to Senegal.
A win over the Lions of Teranga tonight will push the Warriors to the brink of making it past the group stage, which would be another first for the senior national men’s football side.
And whatever happens after their last group stage match against Tunisia, the raging debate that has already exploded in sports bars, kombis and even on social media will continue to explode — Is Callisto Pasuwa’s squad the finest battalion of Warriors since Independence?
The Willard Katsande-skippered side have already nosed ahead in terms of hitting the finishing tape into any AFCON finals qualification after they achieved that feat with one match to be played with a 3-0 whipping of Malawi last June.
Are they the real deal, better than Reinhard Fabisch’s swashbuckling Dream Team, who missed qualification for the 1994 World Cup finals by a whisker? Are they better than Moses Chunga and his 90s entourage who doused The Flames with a 4-0 demolition before horribly falling to the proverbial sucker punch following a very late equaliser by Congo-Brazzaville in a 2-2 draw to deny them a maiden showing at the 1992 finals in Senegal?
I have repeatedly refused to be drawn into this argument and have been forcibly “driven” to raise it once again following the superb show by Pasuwa’s men in that epic 2-2 draw with a team that was only rescued by the continent’s No. 1 player, Riyad Mahrez’s two brilliantly-taken efforts, which beat an otherwise outstanding ‘keeper, Tatenda Mukuruva.
Although Mahrez illuminated Algeria’s show with deft touches and a glittering repertoire, I felt the real star in among the Desert Foxes was ‘keeper Rais M’bohli, who kept them in the hunt with some spectacular saves — remember that one-handed reflex reaction to parry away for a corner Khama Billiat’s individual classic late into the match?
But are these current Warriors the best that we have ever witnessed?
Certainly, in terms of individual finesse and flair, I don’t think anyone can argue with the fact that the ‘80s generation, who were skippered by both Sunday and his younger brother Misheck and later by the late Joel “Jubilee” Shambo, were streets ahead.
Stanford “Stix” Mtizwa, Stanley “Sinyo” Ndunduma, Willard “MaWii” Mashinkila-Khumalo and Chunga could make the ball “talk” with their expansive array of individual brilliance.
But despite all their creative guile, they didn’t qualify for AFCON or World Cup finals.
Those fighting in their corner will argue that the qualifying system then was different because there weren’t any groups set-up and teams featured in straight once-off home/away knockout matches.
The numbers, who also featured at the finals, were fewer than the 16 we have today. The Dream Team had impeccable teamwork approach that was built on a solid foundation plastered by the Ndlovu brothers — Madinda, Peter and Adam — Ephraim Chawanda and Benjamin Nkonjera.
But despite all that metallic cohesion, there were no continental or world stages to showcase their ensemble’s rhythm.
The Class of 2004, which included the likes of Agent Sawu, Charles Yohane, George Mbwando, Joel Luphahla, Tinashe Nengomasha, Ronald Sibanda, Dumisani Mpofu and Dickson Choto did qualify for the AFCON finals and went on to beat Algeria 2-1 in their last group match but by then, they had already been eliminated from the tournament after that 1-2 loss to Egypt and a 3-5 loss to Cameroon.
Two years on saw the Warriors squad, who also included King Peter, leading from the front, of course, Benjani Mwaruwari, Gilbert Mushangazhike, Gift Muzadzi, Lloyd Chitembwe, Zvenyika Makonese and Alois Bunjira, lose their first two group matches to Senegal and Nigeria and needed to beat Ghana 3-1 to advance to the last eight but agonizingly crashed out after only managing a 2-1 triumph.
So, in the absence of the injured Warriors talisman, Knowledge Musona, for tonight’s epic clash against Senegal, it will be left to the artistry of Khama Billiat to conjure up a historic and long-awaited entry into the last eight in the humid conditions of Francesville and perhaps claim that in terms of statistical achievement, they have been the finest Warriors side ever.
Or are they? Meanwhile, Zimbabwe national cricket team are rallying behind the Warriors.
“Dear Warriors, we send our warmest congratulations to every member of the Warriors team for your outstanding performance in Zimbabwe’s opening group match against Algeria at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations finals in Gabon on Sunday,” the Chevrons said in a statement.
“Although the match ended in a 2-2 draw, we were thoroughly impressed by your terrific performance against such a highly rated team. We are looking forward to the remainder of your group games and we have no doubt you will make it to the next stage of the competition.
“Our very best wishes go to you all as you continue flying the Zimbabwe flag high.”