By Tafi Mhaka
It is the 117th minute of an African Cup of Nations final at the Stade Ahmadou Ahidjo in Yaoundé, Cameroon. The match is tied 3-3. The Warriors are battling hard and creating chance after chance – wave after wave à la Barcelona FC – and bombarding the Cameroonian goal area with amazing aerial attacks.
While nearly 40 000 local fans scream and dance to the high-pitched beat of funky African samba sounds, a small and vocal group of Zimbabwean fans, which stands isolated near the VIP section, appears animated and desperate for the winning goal to come to fruition.
You can hear the sound of a pin drop in the heart of Dangamvura. You can catch the sound of a snail crawling across a desolate road in Highfields. Magwegwe North has been silenced by wild anticipation and uncontainable hope. Gweru is silent and in frightful and contemplative mood. All the bottle stores and gochi gochi chill spots countrywide are full of enthusiastic but fidgety fans whose eyes are focused on large plasma TV screens.
You are the capable coach who stands on the cusp of football immortality. Glory is so close: you can lick the taste of victory oozing from your wet lips. You look at the soundless substitutes on the bench. Whom will you bring on that can put this baby to bed and make the nation proud? There is Peter Ndlovu and Moses Chunga on the bench, and only one substitution left.
Zimbabweans can talk a wonderful game in football. Long before the Warriors qualified for the African Cup of Nations for the first time, football fans liked to imagine that the men’s national team could beat Cameroon on any given Sunday the football gods smiled on us.
We liked to hold on to the few major wins we had scored against regional rivals like Zambia and South Africa and dream of much bigger and brighter days ahead. Watching Peter Ndlovu in fine form while he ran circles around sublime South African defenders in the National Sports Stadium inspired legions of new football fans and filled the nation with happiness.
But somebody always bought the lofty hopes of the nation crashing to earth whenever a successful era looked imminent. If it was not Kalusha ‘King Kalu’ Bwalya with a last minute header that spoiled the party for us, poor refereeing and blatant mistreatment in a faraway West African nation sealed our fate.
We have never really made it big on the international arena. Our near and hurtful misses in sport mirror the defeats and disappointments Zimbabwe has endured beyond the football pitch.
Dr Bernard Chidzero nearly became Secretary General of the United Nations, until the real race for the position had begun, and the nation realised he had never stood a chance in Dotito of making it. And then Dr Simba Makoni almost made it to the pinnacle of the African Development Bank. But he never had a chance in Mavambo of bagging that celebrated distinction.
Our trials and tribulations in sport and social and economic affairs have nonetheless made us a proud nation that has boundless belief in our potential for we regularly punch above our weight in small and impactful ways that makes us a special people and beloved country.
We think that foreigners love holidaying on our side of the Victoria Falls much more than the Zambian side and prefer our wildlife parks and tourist attractions. We believe that Mazoe is the best orange crush in the world and Maputi are the crunchiest delights on earth. People claim that Colcom Pork Pies are first-class products and nothing will ever beat the taste of a rasher of bacon produced along Coventry Road in Workington.
The unsurpassed products and magnificent humanity produced by a country so small are an incredible testament to our collective will and purpose. But the fruits of our labour and intuition and much-vaunted education system remain apple pie in the big blue sky that hovers over the desecrated diamond fields in Chiadzwa when compared to the social and economic security enjoyed by Africans in Botswana, South Africa and Namibia.
Although people are ready and willing to help usher in a fresh and winning national mentality, Zimbabwe remains burdened by 37-year veteran politicians, like Sydney Sekeramayi, who believe they need extra time to win a game that slipped out of their hands roughly 17 years ago. Zimbabwe is laden with old policymakers who believe nobody else can bring us off-the-field success.
An astute and strategic substitution is needed now more than ever: swap the old for the new. Take an unbiased and lengthy look at the young players on the bench and try somebody who looks hungry for success. Employ a fresh defensive strategy. Park the bus for a minute. Run faster for a while.
Kick the ball into touch every three minutes. Feign an injury. Waste time and tackle hard and then score the decisive goal. Do something unusual for once: win big for the entire nation. That is the character behind an authentic winning spirit: change. Zimbabwean voters could learn a thing or two from Chelsea manager Antonio Conte.
Before you select your team of the day, check for injuries, loss of confidence and tiredness. Then choose the best players based on form, experience and game strategy. Only the abovementioned qualities count when selecting representatives for your team. Conte will not select a player on the namby-pamby basis that he comes from Uzumba-Maramba-Pfungwe.
Conte will not select a player based on ethnicity. So while N’Golo Kante may be black and of African descent he will often get the nod before Cesc Fabregas does. Yet tribalism blemishes the selection of the best team players in Zimbabwean affairs.
African Development Bank Vice President Mthulisi Ncube could be an excellent national leader in finance and politics. We will never know for sure though, because he is a Ndebele man. Thokozani Khuphe could be a competent leader but she will never get the call to warm up and enter politics at the highest level because she is a woman and Ndebele for that matter. So let us belittle her stature and bash her instead.
Evan Mawarire could become a much-needed bridge between young and old generations in social and economic concerns. Yet we will never know because people rebuke him and the long arm of the law has breathing down his neck for nothing.
Zimbabwe can introduce real change in society through local and national elections and without the need for social gerrymandering if the best candidates on offer are presented with proper prospects to represent the nation. Let us not be narrow-minded: tribalism and gender-based discriminations and unqualified selections are archaic and unproductive for the nation.
When will voters escape tribal classifications and elect a Ndebele president for the first time ever? And how on earth will Zimbabwe score substantial achievements in social and economic matters when millions of people do not participate in societal roles on equal footings? You be the judge on this serious shortcoming. Now – let us get back to Yaoundé. Who will go on in the dying seconds of the biggest game ever for Zimbabwe? Peter Ndlovu or Moses Chunga?