Robson Sharuko in CAIRO, Egypt
IT has been the year of the underdog — from the exciting boys of Ajax Amsterdam illuminating the UEFA Champions League to wild slugger Andy Ruiz (Jnr) humbling heavyweight boxing hulk, and hunk, Anthony Joshua and a group of fearless Warriors now want to rock the 2019 AFCON finals.
Somehow, despite the whole world suggesting it’s Mission Impossible, as fruitless an exercise as trying to extract milk from a football and as improbable as expecting Dynamos to be crowned champions of Zimbabwe football this year, this merry band of swashbuckling Warriors are not in the mood flow with the tide.
The only thing they are conceding is that they are the underdogs.
But, it starts and ends there.
And, anything else from that word becomes a beautiful tale of defiance, a compelling drama of bravery, a refreshing story of resilience and optimism and a superb expression of courage when faced with insurmountable odds in the fortress of the Pharaohs.
After weeks of preparations, where the COSAFA Cup was finally reduced to what it should always have been — a sideshow for preparations and not a tournament where we should always be chasing silverware — and where the Super Eagles were stopped in their backyard, it all comes to this.
Ninety minutes of action in the heat, and suffocating humidity of the Cairo International Stadium, where temperatures are expected to hover above 35 degrees, even for this night game, and where water breaks will be part of the confrontation to give the players a chance to rehydrate.
“During the Total AFCON Egypt 2019 tournament, the average (dry) temperature in June/July is expected to be between 35° C and 38° C, with an average humidity of 40% to 60%,’’ the organisers advised yesterday.
“This would give a high WBGT (Wet Bulb Globe) temperature above 32° C. It is certain that most teams will be aware of this and will train accordingly.
“At this level, FIFA recommends three minutes rest and refreshing breaks in the 30th and 75th minutes.
“These three minute breaks must be properly prepared in logistical terms, before the tournament and before each match and require the provision of cold containers on wheels to put crushed ice, drinks for referees and small towels, cold and wet, to place around the neck for 26 people (four referees + 22 players) for minutes 30 and 75 if necessary.
“It will also be necessary to prepare for any eventuality of Emergencies. It will be important to be able to diagnose and treat heat-related illnesses, if they occur, on site.’’
Yesterday, Zimbabwe coach Sunday “Mhofu’’ Chidzambwa and his influential skipper, Knowledge Musona, finally faced the world media here at their media conference, with the veteran gaffer declaring that his Warriors are underdogs on a mission to show that minnows can also put up a show.
In a year in which the boys of Ajax and the out-of-shape Ruiz Jnr gave underdogs a new meaning, showing that those with the heart and the belief can slay the heavyweights of world sport, Chidzambwa’s message appeared to resonate within his audience impressed by the fearlessness of these Warriors.
“We are playing in a very difficult group,’’ Chidzambwa told the world media. “We also played in a difficult group in the qualifiers.
“Egypt, I know, they are no pushovers, they have won this tournament six or seven times and it’s not an easy match for us, but as one of the 24 teams that have qualified, we have come here to do our best.
“I think we have very experienced players who are currently playing outside Zimbabwe and they can take care of everything, I think we played under the same atmosphere in DRC and in Congo-Brazzaville, our players are now used to playing under this atmosphere.
“I think winning in Kinshasa against DR Congo was a very big achievement for us, Congo is one of the best teams in Africa and they won the tournament twice and that actually is going to motivate our players.
“When a team qualifies for a football tournament, I think you are looking for the best result. We very well know that Egypt are a very good team and we are the underdogs but since we are one of the 24 teams who have qualified, there is nothing that can stop us from making a surprise.
“These things happen in football, but I think the best team that day is going to win the match.’’
The Warriors will begin their campaign on the back foot, midfielder Tafadzwa Kutinyu was ruled out of the tournament by a knee injury suffered in a practice match against Tanzania on Sunday.
“As for the injured player, I think we have enough cover, it’s just unfortunate because we wanted this player but these things happen, (for) the replacement, we will sit down with my technical team and decide whom to bring,’’ said Chidzambwa.
“Khama Billiat has also been nursing an injury and we will know by tomorrow (today), whether he is going to make it or not but we are confident he will make it.
“We also have the Umbro balls, we are training well, as to how fast they are I don’t know, for me, a ball is a ball and it doesn’t make any difference.’’
Team vice captain, Ovidy Karuru, also pulled out of the training session on Tuesday after suffering a knock and will have to be assessed.
Inevitably, they were asked about Mohamed Salah, how they will handle him, here in the place where, if football could be defined as a religion, then he is a god.
That question went to Musona and, as he has said again-and-again leading to tomorrow’s opener, the Warriors were taking on the Pharaohs, and not Salah, and concentrating on the superstar would be suicidal.
Well, well, well, this certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted, but then, this has been the story of these Warriors in this campaign.
Meanwhile, FC Platinum defender Lawrence Mhlanga will replace the injured Tafadzwa Kutinyu for the Warriors 2019 AFCON campaign.
Team manager Wellington Mpandare announced the changes last night.
Mhlanga was part of the Warriors squad at the COSAFA Cup this year.
Kutinyu is likely to stay in camp with the rest of his teammates.