Eddie Chikamhi Senior Sports Reporter
THE Zimbabwe senior national football team was left pondering what could have been after they upstaged West Africans, Guinea, in their last match of the 2021 African Cup of Nations tournament at the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium in Yaounde, Cameroon, on Tuesday.
As the nation reflects on the failed campaign in Cameroon, many will agree that Zimbabwe certainly had realistic chances, better than they had at four previous AFCON finals, of pulling through from the group stage for the first time had they got one or two things correct.
Even with enticing bonuses and pledges by the Government and the late entrance by FBC Holdings with a rather ambitious and tantalising deal, the Warriors finished bottom of Group B with three points.
Senegal advanced to the last 16 as the top team with five points while Guinea were second with four points. Malawi also had four points and have strong chances of progressing as one of the best four third-placed finishers.
FBC Holdings had set the bar high for the Warriors after pledging 27 houses (worth US$60 000 each) in Harare for the national team if they had won the tournament and US$1 000 for each member of the team and delegation for every game won, starting with their second assignment against Malawi.
Popular cleric, Passion Java, also pledged to pay the Warriors’ team US$5 000 for every goal scored, ahead of the same game.
FBC Holdings Group chief executive officer, John Mushayavanhu, yesterday said they will honour their pledge once all the players and representatives have arrived back home.
“Certainly we are going to honour the pledge that we made to the Warriors delegation. We said we were going to give the players and the members of the technical team US$1 000 each for every match they win at the tournament.
“Our wish was for them to bring the trophy back home and unfortunately it couldn’t happen. We would have loved to see the guys winning and putting the nation on the map.
“So we are going to call a press conference as soon as they all arrive back home to do a formal handover of the bonuses for the match that they won,” said Mushayavanhu.
The first batch of the Warriors is expected to arrive back home from Cameroon this afternoon while the overseas-based players, led by skipper Knowledge Musona, will be heading straight to their bases. Striker Tino Kadewere was the first to depart yesterday.
Warriors team manager, Wellington Mpandare, yesterday said the players are looking forward to the fulfilment of the pledges.
“The players and the technical team did their best. We had hoped to progress from the group but, like what the coach said in previous interviews, it was unfortunate some results did not go our way.
“The guys were really motivated even before the pledges came in. Some of the things were not officially communicated to the team but the guys still kept their focus.
“I understand the FBC issue is being handled at a higher level and I am sure an announcement will be made. It will obviously be a process for the money to come in because we have to submit the names and details of all the members of the delegation, something which has not been requested yet. So we will stand guided by the authorities.
“As for prophet Java, we have heard about his pledge via social media and I am sure that’s one of the ways that he uses to communicate. So we wait to hear from him and his team,” said Mpandare.
Zimbabwe finished bottom of Group B with three points from the 2-1 victory over Guinea on Tuesday night.
But the win over Naby Keita’s Guinea, who are ranked much higher on the FIFA rankings, came in too late. The Warriors were already out of the tournament following the late 0-1 defeat to Senegal and the shock 1-2 loss to Malawi.
But on Tuesday night, goals from skipper Knowledge Musona and Kuda Mahachi helped the Warriors put their sorrows behind them.
Liverpool star, Keita, reduced the arreas for Guinea in the second half but the Warriors held on to only their third win at the AFCON finals since they made their debut at the grand stage in 2004.
Many followers of the Zimbabwe team back home did not know whether to celebrate or not, since the victory did not make much of a difference in the quest to qualify from the group.
The win, however, carried a lot of significance for the Warriors considering it took them eight games, spread across 16 years, to break the jinx. Zimbabwe had last won a game at this competition in 2006 when they edged Ghana by the same scoreline.
They had also won once in their debut appearance in Tunisia when they beat Algeria by the same margin, and in a dead rubber again, two years earlier.
The Warriors have now played five times at the AFCON finals. But the records at the previous two editions were not inspiring. The Callisto Pasuwa-coached outfit returned home with one point at the 2017 edition from the 2-2 draw against Algeria in the opening match.
The 2019 edition under Sunday Chidzambwa was no different as Zimbabwe again achieved one point from the three group matches in the disappointing 1-1 draw with Uganda.
There were high hopes this year. Despite being drawn in a group that had the continent’s leading team Senegal, the Warriors always had a fighting chance to collect points against Guinea and Malawi.
In fact, they could have at least settled for a share of the spoils in the first game against the much-fancied Senegalese side. Malawi and Guinea proved that the star-studded side was not as intimidating as it looked on paper.
Big teams like Ghana, Algeria and Tunisia have also found the going tough this year.
But tournament football is an intricate game. Senegal have only scored once at this tournament, a 97th penalty against Zimbabwe, yet they finished top of the table with five points, after playing goalless draws against Guinea and Malawi.
Zimbabwe, who finished with three goals in the bag, scored more than the Sadio Mane-led side which failed to get a single goal in open play throughout the group games.
Zimbabwe had themselves to blame for the defeat to Senegal in their opening match in which they conceded a handball in the box in the last minute of added time.
They had defended well and had done almost everything to frustrate the West Africans.
If only they had managed the game well in those dying minutes, a point against Senegal could have given them a good platform. It was a lesson learnt the hard way.