Our Dear Warriors,
LAST year, sports journalist Simon Burnton provided probably the best illustration of that day in Turin, on July 4, 1990, when Engand’s World Cup dreams ended in a flood of tears shed by Paul Gascoigne.
A second yellow card, picked by Gazza in that semi-final against Germany, meant the midfielder – one of the stand-out players at that World Cup – would miss the final in the event the Three Lions qualified for the decider.
As reality dawned on Gazza, the midfielder burst into tears, under the full examination of television cameras broadcasting the events live around the globe, and the whole of England, appeared to also cry with him.
‘‘Paul Gascoigne’s bottom lip wobbled as he was ruled out of a World Cup final England would never reach, and Gazzamania was born,’’ Burnton wrote in The Guardian newspaper.
‘‘For all the uplifting moments in England’s march from the foyer of ignominy to the doorstep of greatness in 1990, we have chosen to define it by this one.
‘‘The swell of unexpected hope experienced by the English coincided with the blossoming of Gascoigne’s rare and fragile talent; they rose together, they fell together – quite a bit sooner than either would have liked – and frankly everyone’s still a bit bitter about it.’’
On Sunday, at a National Sports Stadium exploding with life and pregnant with colour, we saw Khama Billiat score a beauty from a free-kick and captain Knowledge Musona read the last rites at the funeral of the slain Red Devils of Congo.
And, in the process, this ensured you guys found a way to finally exorcise the Ghost of ’91.
But, just like the Three Lions in Turin in ’90, it was the tears of Alec Mudimu, which caught our eyes and provided confirmation, if ever any was needed, that you are true Warriors.
Men whose loyalty to your country knows no boundaries, Warriors who refused to be intimidated by the profile of the two Congolese sides who, just a few years ago, met in the AFCON quarter-finals, footballers who punched above their weight.
Men who stood toe-to-toe with the most expensive player in African football history, over 180 minutes, and prevented him from scoring over 180 minutes.
Troops who marched into Kinshasa and refused to be weighed down by history, by a reminder that a group from here once went there on a similar assignment and conceded five goals in a humiliating defeat, and found a way to outplay the hosts and beat them 2-1.
And, when the Congolese Red Devils erected the final hurdle on Sunday, you also refused to be humbled by history, by the ghosts from their last visit here, on a similar assignment in 1991, when they somehow found a way to steal a point they needed to qualify for the ’92 AFCON finals.
We saw what the events on Sunday meant to you guys because, amid an explosion of boundless joy, and a rare public expression of his emotions, we saw your coach Sunday Chidzambwa hoist his 67-year-old body into the air and then land in the arms of his lieutenants.
His broken right leg, a life-long scar and graphic reminder of the punishment his body took during his days as a tough centre-back, the product of a vicious injury that ended his career as a player, didn’t seem to matter at all in that moment of triumph and delirium.
Adrenaline had taken over the heart, seized the soul and captured the spirit and even for Chidzambwa, a battle-hardened Warrior who has practically seen it all in this game, this was just too much to contain inside his body.
We saw your stricken and inspirational captain Musona, battling a groin strain that limited him to about half his athletic prowess, score a wonder goal that was a mockery to all the pain he was suffering.
The insurance second goal arriving in style, the skipper taking the ball on his chest and smuggling his volley between the goalkeeper and the post, and from there, surely, we knew there would be no comeback for these Red Devils.
That’s five goals for him, more goals than Mohamed Salah scored for Egypt (four) in these qualifiers and more goals than Sadio Mane scored for Seenegal and more goals than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for Gabon.
We refused to swallow the argument that Khama Billiat’s star was fading and that is why we boldly backed him, even when some hostile sections were feeding on that narrative, and seeing him score that beauty of a free-kick on Sunday felt like a present to our conviction.
We have always known that genius cannot be contained and, no matter what everyone says, there is true genius in you guys – Knowledge and Khama as the leaders, Marshall Munetsi developing into a genuine powerhouse, Teenage Hadebe and Alec Mudimu proving a rock at the back.
Even without our best ball carrier in midfielder, Marvelous Nakamba, we found a way to move the ball forward, to provide the link between defence and attack.
Six years ago, we lost 2-4 to Egypt in the same giant stadium with Salah scoring a hattrick but, even in that darkest hour, we never doubted you and never contemplated abandoning you simply because, for us, you are a big part of our identity and nothing else matters.
From that team thrashed by the Pharaohs, only Musona from the players who started that match, was in the starting XI on Sunday and Billiat and Ovidy Karuru, who both came in as substitutes six years ago, played against the Red Devils.
It’s a sign of the vast talent that has emerged in our football gold mines in the past six years that we continue to see all these players flooding into your fold.
Some people doubted you on this mission, your kit partner didn’t even deliver the kit in time for Sunday’s match, somehow designing one that looked like a cheap version of Barcelona’s away strip, some overzealous officials shut you out of the giant stadium, the pathetic turf didn’t help your cause and a fan lost her life.
Others called you chokers, because twice you failed to complete the mission, and some questioned your coach’s ability to keep up with the changing game, but we kept believing, kept supporting and thanks for rewarding us with this ticket to Egypt.
Thanks for delivering for your country and, as Gazza’s tears in ’90 and Mudimu’s tears on Sunday will testify, there is nothing better than that.
And, because you stood up for us on Sunday, John Sibanda can now rest in eternal peace. God bless you, our dear Warriors.
From your all-weather colleagues at Herald Sport