Robson Sharuko in CAIRO, Egypt
PREDICTABLY, there has been some toxicity, which is part of our game’s DNA, regrettably there has been a tsunami of negativity, which is part of its tortured soul and, refreshingly, there has been a rainbow of positivity, which has provided a filter of hope, in the gloom of hopelessness.
Ugly headlines, across the globe, provoked by an industrial action on the eve of their opening game, explosive – and in most cases largely exaggerated social media reports – of the Armageddon that swept their tumultuous camp, sensational reports of an implosion, and a meltdown, like has never been seen before.
It’s not that there were no issues in their camp.
Of course, there were a lot of them, and on Thursday night the Warriors were furious their US$9 000 payouts per individual, hadn’t reflected in their bank accounts and, if that was the case the following day, they would not play against the Pharaohs.
But, at least, the Warriors were here.
The defending champions, the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, the first team to break the barriers of mediocrity for African teams at the World Cup, the first to make dancing such a fashionable act at the global football show, were not even here.
An ugly standoff with their football leaders, over unpaid dues, meant they refused to board the plane that was meant to bring them here and, in that moment, ensured the narrative of their Egyptian adventure would not be about the defence of their title, but the chaos in their camp.
But, football has a way of converting its chaos into chemistry.
And, the same Indomitable Lions were the toast of their nation, just two years ago, when they powered to another AFCON title after beating the Pharaohs in the final in Gabon.
The same Pharaohs who, on Friday night, were also the opponents as the Warriors sang their redemption song with a strong performance, the same Egyptians who, today, will also be part of the double-header show, at the Cairo International Stadium, when Group A explodes once again.
The Warriors will start the ball rolling, at 7pm, against the Cranes of Uganda, where a defeat will complicate, if not virtually end their 2019 AFCON Cup dreams, in a tournament where only eight of the 24 teams will go home after the group stages.
And four of the six third-placed teams will also get a ticket into the knockout stages.
Sunday Chidzambwa’s men charmed the world in the first game, especially in the second-half, and they now have to convince the globe it wasn’t all a fluke.
That is why they need, unlike in the first game, to find a way to convert their industry into goals and victory tonight, which will provide a major boost to their campaign, or – in the worst case scenario – fight for a point.
The last time Mhofu was in this position, at the 2004 AFCON finals, after an opening day defeat at the hands of the Pharaohs, the coach made just two changes to his team, bringing in Dickson Choto for Kaitano Tembo and Joel Luphahla for Agent Sawu.
Those Warriors responded by scoring three goals against the Indomitable Lions, with their skipper Peter Ndlovu scoring twice, in a 3-5 defeat.
If the Warriors’ skipper Knowledge Musona, the team’s most influential player since King Peter retired, finds his touch, and a similar impact, the expectation would be that these Warriors can fish something from this make-or-break battle against the Cranes.
Sometimes, there is sense that, whatever it is, this script was written a long time ago.
After all, how do we reconcile the fact that, just like in 2004, it had to be the Pharaohs in the first game, it had to be a one-goal victory margin for the Egyptians, it had to be Mhofu in charge, and the Indomitable Lions – whom the Warriors met in their second match 15 years ago – would also feature prominently in their tale here?
How can Mhofu rally his men for this huge battle against the Cranes who will play with the freedom that, even if they lose, they are still firmly in the race for the knockout stages while the Warriors don’t have the luxury of any margin of error which, in this game, comes with a heavy load?
How can he inspire a team, that hasn’t won a game at this level of football since a 2-1 win over Ghana in 2006, find a way to post a victory?
Maybe, as a Manchester United fan himself, he requires to borrow a leaf from an historic speech made by a former MP of his team’s home city, who later became the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, which dragged his country from the edge of defeat, in World War II, to the green fields of success against the Germans.
“What the world called the Battle against the Pharaohs is over, the Battle against the Cranes is about to begin and, upon this battle, depends the survival of the Warriors at this AFCON tournament,’’ Mhofu should, probably, say.
“The whole fury and might of the Cranes will very soon be turned on us, the Ugandans know they will have to break us or lose the right to qualify from our group.
“If we can stand up to them, all of our people back home can draw a sense of appreciation for our efforts and our quest, to stay longer in this tournament, will move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.
“But, if we fail, then all our dreams, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.
“Let us, therefore, brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the Warriors Empire last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘THIS WAS THEIR FINEST HOUR.’’’
A victory, tonight, will suit that narrative.