BUT, AS MHOFU TOLD ME ON THAT FLIGHT FROM ABIDJAN IN ’98, THIS IS A RUTHLESS AND THANKLESS JOB
Sharuko on Saturday
ON the long flight home from Abidjan, just hours after Dynamos’ quest for the immortality of becoming the first Zimbabwean football club to be crowned champions of Africa had wilted in the intensity of the Ivorian heat, Sunday Chidzambwa asked me to take a seat beside him to reflect on the events of that afternoon.
Back in those days, we knew him as Marimo and not Chidzambwa, the man who on any given Sunday — whether as a tough centre-back or a trailblazing coach whose technical brilliance drove him to heights that are yet to be touched by his peers — would always provide the leadership his family of Glamour Boys always relied upon in their quest for greatness.
The dramatic events of that unforgettable Sunday in Abidjan had taken their toll on his battered and battle-weary troops, their failure to conquer the last team standing in a fairy-tale push for the greatness that comes with becoming champions of Africa, having both depressed and weakened them so much they had long lost the energy to keep awake and had slipped into dreamland.
But, for Sunday, as their leader, the demons of failure were wreaking havoc with his emotions he couldn’t find the peace of mind needed for a sleep as he battled a flood of questions that had no answers, trapped in the brutality of a soul-searching exercise whose pain was probably far worse than what he went through that afternoon when Joseph Zulu’s tackle inflicted an injury that brought a premature ending to his career.
And, in those desperate times, he decided he needed someone to talk to, to pour out his frustration of having come so near, yet so far, from the ultimate glory, a coach and team which the cruel world of football, which never celebrates those who come second, would soon forget as it toasted the arrival of the Ivorian giants into the special enclosure reserved for champions.
He turned to me, being one of the few who were still awake in that plane as it cut across miles of the African jungle on its southbound trip that would eventually take us home, where a nation that had been united and charmed by the heroics of these Glamour Boys, in their battle for greatness, lay in wait for us with its hearts broken by their failure to transform themselves into champions of the continent.
That I was sipping a Danish beer, whose marketing motto – “probably the best beer in the world” — provided a cruel irony to the reality that Mhofu and his troops had failed in their quest to turn themselves into “probably the best football club in Africa,” as I tried to drown my sorrows, having long lost my sense of professionalism as I joined my fellow Zimbabweans in this hour of emotional turmoil.
There comes moments, few and far between, when journalism and everything that it represents, where you aren’t supposed to be part of the story, fade away and become secondary, overwhelmed by bigger issues like a national cause and on that trip to Abidjan, Dynamos had long ceased to be a club in pursuit of its glory, but clearly, in pursuit of a nation’s glory.
Then, Mhofu spoke.
“Tough Rob, we have failed the nation,” his voice pregnant with emotion. “We tried our best, but it wasn’t our day. My team, the way I always set it up, when we score two goals, as we have done today, we usually win, because our defence is normally our biggest weapon, but today, things didn’t go according to plan.
“The sad part and that is what is making me very, very sad, is that people won’t remember the miracle that my boys have produced in this journey. Some people will mock them as failures, because they didn’t get the job done, some will even insult them for not clearing the final hurdle.
“Some people will severely criticise me, my tactics and everything, simply because we have lost this very big game and what we have achieved, coming this far, which has never been done before by a Zimbabwean football club, winning in Nigeria, beating the Tunisians, drawing in Ghana, winning in Mozambique and Malawi will all be forgotten because we didn’t complete the journey.
“It’s a ruthless and thankless job this one.”
To his eternal credit, Sunday didn’t try to find an excuse for his team’s failure in the drama that had resulted in his inspirational skipper, Memory Mucherahowa, being eliminated from the biggest battle of his career — sent to hospital by a head-butt from the Ivorians in a warm-up fracas which the hosts had choreographed to ensure they took him out of the match — while his troops fought, without their leader, in that showdown.
And, for that, he earned my respect.
AND, ALMOST TWENTY YEARS LATER, HERE WE GO AGAIN
On the eve of the 20th anniversary of that year when Sunday and his troops came close to greatness, only to suffer a barrage of severe criticism from a country that has refused to acknowledge the special nature of their achievements and adventure, we somehow find ourselves being confronted by a similar situation as our nation once again goes into another painful soul-searching exercise in the wake of the Warriors’ elimination from the Nations Cup finals at the group stage.
And, as fate would have it, it’s a member of that Glamour Boys Class of ’98, who was one of the players who had long been consumed by the comfort of sleep on that plane as we flew back home, his energy having been drained by an hour-and-half of an intense midfield battle against the sensational Donald-Olivier Sie, whose superb talent would later take him to four French clubs, including Toulouse, who is in the eye of a raging storm.
Callisto Pasuwa played in both legs of that CAF Champions League final in ’98, the entire 180 minutes in Harare and Abidjan and little did we know back then, as we flew back home on that plane licking our wounds, that he would be the one who — among those Glamour Boys — would rise to fill the big shoes his coach would leave both at Dynamos and the Warriors.
But, after repaying his old club by guiding them to four straight league titles and in the process re-establishing the domestic dominance they had lost during an extended period of decline, Pasuwa also ended the Warriors’ 10-year wait for a return to the Nations Cup finals by masterminding their successful qualifying campaign for the 2017 AFCON showcase in Gabon.
And, for the first time in the Warriors’ history, they qualified for the Nations Cup finals as winners of their group, with a game to spare, somehow transforming themselves from hopeless campaigners, who had been booted out of the preliminary round of the qualifiers by Tanzania to turn it around and take their place among the heavyweights of the game on the continent.
However, after his Warriors finished bottom of their group, becoming the first troops from this country to fail to win a game at the AFCON finals, Pasuwa’s tactics — or is it the lack of them — have come under severe scrutiny from an unforgiving nation that believes it’s our divine right to win this tournament.
Even when the opposition we face at the Nations Cup finals include players like legendary Egyptian ‘keeper Essam El-Hadary, who has raked in 146 international caps and has won four AFCON titles, as an individual, while we — as a nation — have only qualified for three Nations Cup finals.
Yes, Pasuwa isn’t perfect, he is still a very raw diamond that needs a lot of polishing and given he was the second youngest coach in Gabon, that shows he still has time on his side, in terms of developing himself into a very, very good coach and on reflection he can see there were things he could have done differently in Gabon.
Like changing his back four whose fatal shortcomings were exposed from the first game against Algeria, accepting that Elisha Muroiwa — his confidence clearly very low after a season blighted by injuries when he had not played as much football as was needed to make him deal with the challenges that come with an AFCON finals — didn’t deserve a place in that starting XI and Teenage Hadebe, who has shone brightly every time he has been tried, would have done a far better job.
Accepting that his wing defenders, while they had served him well against lesser opponents in the qualifiers, did not have the pace and positional discipline to confront the challenges of playing against such better opponents and were always found wandering elsewhere, when danger loomed, like when Mane scored at the back post without anyone challenging on that wing and weren’t supposed to be guaranteed places to play all three games as was the case in Gabon.
Accepting that Costa Nhamoinesu, for all the leadership qualities he had shown playing as a central defender against Malawi and Swaziland during the qualifiers, was probably more suited, with his pace and strength, to play on the left side of the defence where his instincts tell him he should be positioned given he plays that role for his club.
Accepting that Matthew Rusike, after that first game against Algeria, could not play the role that Knowledge Musona plays and there was need for a change of plan, or personnel and Evans Rusike, when he came in the second half against Senegal probably did better to warrant more than just playing 45 minutes.
Understanding that the opposing coaches, after the first game, had targeted Khama Billiat as our danger man and spent hours trying to find a way of how to stop him and we needed to also have reacted accordingly.
But, for all the weaknesses he showed in Gabon, the way he was exposed in those battles, I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that Pasuwa is a hopeless coach and I also feel it’s unfair for us to savage him as a useless coach on the basis of his performance in two games against some of the best teams on the continent.
He arrived in Gabon as a rookie, facing this kind of challenges for the first time, the only coach without the benefit that comes with playing and coaching in Europe, the only one with a captain without the benefit of playing in Europe and one of just two coaches who had an entire squad of players playing at this level of football for the first time in their careers.
Yes, as a nation, we expected more from him and our boys, a Cinderella tale like Leicester City or Zambia winning the AFCON title in 2012, but that Chipolopolo crashed out in the group stage three years later and failed to make it to Gabon and the Foxes of Leicester could be relegated this season, should have told us something about reality.
Yes, let’s accept that we had some reality checks in Gabon and that we didn’t do as well as our dreams had told us, was not because we had a coach who was hopeless, but simply because we had a coach and players who found this level a bit higher than we had anticipated.
FACTS, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, ARE VERY, VERY STUBBORN
When George Mbwando said we needed someone to help Pasuwa, now that the level of the game had changed, he was severely criticised by a lot of people who said where was he when our coach was going on that overnight road trip to Malawi and winning the match and interestingly, these are the same people today who are saying George was right after all.
When the ZIFA High Performance Committee questioned the pedigree of Pasuwa’s assistants, they were heavily criticised for allegedly interfering in the coach’s job and wanting to take over the show, but now that we didn’t do very well in Gabon, the same people who were criticising Mhofu, Bambo and Rahman Gumbo are the first to say these fellows were right.
When the draw for Gabon placed us in Group B, against Algeria, Senegal and Tunisia, who are all in Africa’s top five, the same people who were saying the Warriors were going to be humiliated, would concede an average of six goals per match, would barely compete, are the same people now saying we should have won that group and qualified for the quarter-finals.
That we are a nation which, having qualified for just three AFCON finals in 36 years, only making it to the showcase just once every 12 years on average and who waited for 24 years for our first dance at the finals, is conveniently forgotten by those who say that we should be winning the tournament every time we compete there.
That our best player failed to make the grade at two obscure teams in Germany, and now finds himself playing in Belgium where all the best Belgian players play elsewhere in better and tougher leagues, isn’t taken into account by these fierce critics who are always demanding miracles.
That our second best player remains stuck in the retirement zone of South Africa, when his colleague Keegan Dolly has already made the grade to France, isn’t taken into account by these severe critics who are always saying that we should always stand, pound-for-pound, with the very best on the continent.
Guys, when our victory in Malawi at the start of the 2017 AFCON qualifiers was the first time our Warriors have won a Nations Cup qualifier away from home, since Peter Ndlovu and Tinashe Nengomasha scored in the 2-0 win over Rwanda in Kigali on July 23, 2004, losing 11 of those games and drawing only three, shouldn’t that say something about us in terms of how far we can go as a football nation?
When, after the turn of the millennium, in the AFCON qualifiers, we have only won four games away from home, drawn five and lost 14 matches, doesn’t that say something about us as a football nation and before we feast on Pasuwa, shouldn’t we look at the structural shortcomings that have ensured we don’t produce another Peter Ndlovu and another Stanley Ndunduma or another Moses Chunga?
When those whom we have beaten on the road, in the AFCON qualifiers since the turn of the millennium are Rwanda (2-0); Lesotho (1-0); Seychelles (1-0) and the Central African Republic (1-0), doesn’t that suggest Pasuwa and his boys, tried as hard as they could just to make it to Gabon, where the likes of Zambia and South Africa fell by the wayside and they need to be embraced than ridiculed.
But, as Mhofu said on that flight from Abidjan, this is a ruthless and thankless job. I just wonder what would be happening today if we were Cote d’Ivoire, the defending champions knocked out, just like us, without a win at the group stages, or Algeria — with all their galaxy of stars — who just took one point more than us in Gabon.
TO GOD BE THE GLORY!
Come on Warriors!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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