THREE HOURS OF HELL
Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor
EVERY campaign, in football as in politics, has its defining moment when time appears to stand still, frozen by a giant wave of expectations and crippled by fear of failure. When a nation gets weighed down by the relentless pressure that comes with facing the seemingly immovable object.
And a group of athletes are tormented by the ghosts of rejection, and the demons of psychological paralysis, which could inevitably creep in should things not go according to plan.
Where triumph defines the rest of the campaign, amplifies the levels of confidence and sets the stage for the eventual success story to be scripted.
And, celebrated, when the curtain finally comes down on this adventure.
For the Dream Team, that defining moment came in an explosive and volatile away test against the Pharaohs one wild night in Cairo a quarter-of-a-century ago.
Before 120 000 fans, Reinhard Fabisch and his men had everything thrown at them — including a storm of flying missiles — in a game they eventually lost 1-2 under a cloud of controversy.
FIFA, to their eternal credit, refused to be frog-marched into endorsing the result of that match and ruled the conditions inside the stadium made it impossible for a fair outcome to emerge from the contest.
It led to the nullification of that result, and an order for a replay in neutral French soil, in Lyon, where those Warriors certainly came of age as they held out for a draw.
From there, they marched to eventually knock on the doors of a place at the FIFA World Cup finals — the only time we have come within winning just one game and qualifying for this ultimate global football showcase.
Twenty five years later, another generation of Warriors — possibly not as good as the Dream Team, probably not as strong as Fabisch’s men and certainly not as talented as that machine the German coach assembled — have just faced and passed their defining moment.
It came in the form of two brutal back-to-back battles against a very strong Democratic Republic of Congo side which severely tested them that, by the end of the second match in Harare, they were just hanging on the ropes and clinging to the dividend in their pockets.
Over 180 minutes reputations, as in the case of Tendai Darikwa, were built, character, as in the case of Marshal Munetsi, was shown, and a remarkable indomitable spirit, as in the case of the entire team, was displayed.
Four points from a possible six, including a rare away victory for them in Kinshasa where they lost their influential captain to a red card, and a draw at home in which they were conned of a valid goal by questionable referees, was the kind of stuff that defines excellence.
Of course, there will be regrets, like the shambolic own goal they conceded at home, the chances they didn’t take and the poor passages of play which characterised that match on Tuesday night where they played second fiddle for many minutes.
But only the devil and his advocates will ignore the damage inflicted on them by the absence of key players, through injury and suspension, including an influential skipper who is the heart and soul of this team.
Or the damage inflicted by that diabolical call to rule that Khama Billiat had strayed offside, on his way to providing an assist to Knox Mutizwa, given a second goal would have ended this contest.
On another day, and another referee, they would also have got a penalty while the quality of the opposition — who sent into battle a front-line worth more than $100 million — should also be taken into account.
This was certainly a point which carried its weight in gold and provided further confirmation of their rapid transformation of these Warriors into never-say-die fighters who now deservedly stand on the threshold of another AFCON finals dance.
The standing ovation they received from their fans, at the end of a feisty contest on Tuesday night, told the powerful story of a blooming romance between the players and supporters who have bonded into a unit in this remarkable journey.
There have been days when such a home draw would have attracted a lukewarm response, and even the toxic negativity of some boos, at a stadium where fans expect the Warriors to always win, irrespective of the quality of the opposition.
Not this one, of course, because there was an appreciation for the shift the boys put despite the absence of some key personnel and the challenges of playing such two tough matches inside four days.
Now, these Warriors stand on the threshold of another AFCON finals dance and all they need is just a point in their final two matches to guarantee that.
Interestingly, they could even lose both matches and, should the DRC win their remaining two games, the Warriors will still march to Cameroon.
Considering they have been without Nyasha Mushekwi, Costa Nhamoinesu, Billiat didn’t play in the first game, Musona was sent off in the third game and missed the fourth, this has been remarkable.
And that Danny Phiri limped out just before the match on Tuesday, Nakamba only returned for the DRC matches and Tino Kadewere remains sidelined, this has been quite an achievement.
In those three hours of two titanic back-to-back battles in Kinshasa and Harare — one on an artificial surface and the other on natural grass — these Warriors faced their defining moment and came of age.