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A tribute to the Warriors ‘Dream Team’

By Lot Chitakasha

The death of Paul Gundani following hard on the heels of that of Willard Khumalo plunged all football lovers into mourning. This was another blow to the football fraternity and even more so to the legions of fans who had the privilege of watching the Dream Team.

A tribute to the Warriors 'Dream Team'
A tribute to the Warriors ‘Dream Team’

The team raised the hopes of a nation, cut across racial boundaries and united all and sundry in pursuit of that elusive dream of qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations and World Cup. While I mourn the passing away of the heroes of this team, I have also decided to write a dedication and to celebrate the joy they brought a nation.

Without doubt, Zimbabwe has produced some good national teams since 1980. We have had quality players down the ages, players like Japhet Mparutsa, arguably the best goal keeper to emerge out of the post independence era.

Oliver Kateya, Sunday Marimo, Graham Boyle, Joseph Zulu, Onias Musana, Robert Godoka, Ephert Lungu, Stix Mtizwa, Joel Shambo, Moses Chunga, Stanley Ndunduma and James Takavada to mention just a few.

These players formed good national teams of the 1980’s and early 1990’s. The support of the various national teams was strong then and yet something was missing. For some reason these great squads never really captured the hearts and minds of the whole nation.

Fans came, watched and went back home, the national team did not enter the collective psyche of the nation. They did not dominate the national discourse. This was about to change with the arrival of Reinhard Fabisch, the German coach and The Dream Team.

Football writers will have to investigate why Fabisch had such an impact but what cannot be disputed is that he changed the way we viewed the national team and how we supported it. Perhaps it was media coverage, maybe it was the many sponsors who suddenly came on board, or we can attribute it to the quality of players of whom Peter Ndlovu was the star. The profile of the national team rose to unprecedented levels.

Fabisch galvanised the patriotic fervour of the nation and made everyone fall in love with the team. Supporters group became more active and prominent and supporters like Romario Musekiwa were renowned for their passionate support of the team.

Supporting the team became a quasi-religious experience, the National Sports Stadium the cathedral of hope and we all became disciples. The stadium became the burying ground of such football giants like Egypt, Cameroon and Guinea to mention a few. Crowds of sixty thousand would gather at this great stadium and the Warriors always delivered.

Fabisch set the tone of his reign with that 4 -1 thumping of South Africa, a team which was coming in from the cold after years of isolation from international football. He pulled the wool over the South Africans by playing the underdog card and constantly praising Bafana Bafana and this lulled them into a false sense of security.

Their coach, Screamer Tshabalala had been credited with developing a new football philosophy known as Shoe-Shine Piano, a short passing game which involved a lot of positional changes. Indeed it was an Africanised version of the Dutch’s Total Football. He had the players to excel in this style, the likes of Doctor Khumalo, John ”Shoes” Moshoeu, Max “Go man Go” Maponyane, Lucas Radebe, Chippa Masinga to mention a few.

On this occasion, however it did not work.

To say it was a baptism of fire would be an understatement, it was a rude awakening. Two moments stand out in this match, the thunderbolt by Rahman Gumbo and the dazzling run and finish by Peter Ndlovu, the star of the cast.

In between these magical moments, we had a well crafted goal by Bafana Bafana which exhibited the Shoe- Shine piano style. The match will go down as one of the best to be played at the giant stadium, needless to say that Screamer did not last long in the job and the much taunted Shoe-Shine piano was unceremoniously dumped.

Fabisch had won the psychological battle and this was to define his reign. Many have questioned his tactical nous but two matches will put this to bed. The match against Cameroon which Zimbabwe won 1-0 through a goal by Agent Sawu.

He brought in Madinda with the match seemingly heading for a draw. His pace started to trouble the Lions and before long he switched the ball to Vitalis on the other wing who delivered a pin point cross for Agent to nod home.

The other match was the 4-1 demolition of the same opponent in which our recently passed hero, Paul Gundani scored a 40 yard screamer. Again Fabisch made an unpopular decision, pulled out Wifred Mugeyi and introduced the late Gundani and moved Norman Mapeza into midfield. Gundani ‘s goal turned the match in favour of the Warriors.

These two decisions clearly show a tactically aware coach. Fabisch was a fighter and the way he secured a replay for the Warriors against Egypt is the stuff of legends. The Warriors had been beaten in Cairo but went on to hold the Egyptians in Lyon allowing them to go on to the next round.

Fabisch’s reign ended acrimoniously but while it lasted he galvanised a nation. Some football commentators have dismissed Fabisch as having done nothing more than tap into the nationalist fervour of the people. Some even accused him of favouring players from one team and this argument seemed to gain traction with his inclusion of Rahman when everyone expected him to pick Moses Chunga.

Some even accused him of cultivating a mercenary attitude among the players due to the large amounts they were paid. These debates will go on forever but I think Fabisch became the nation’s favourite adopted son during his reign.

He also raised the profile of the players and many of them secured contracts abroad. Although we failed to qualify for both tournaments, I still regard Fabisch as one of the best coaches for the national team. He adopted the cause with a zeal never seen before and images of his bandaged bloodied head in Cairo showed how the Warriors and their coach were prepared to take the fight to the lion’s den. This fighting spirit is what I will remember forever about the man who sadly passed away in 2008.

What about the other members of the squad.

Bruce Grobelaar, ”The Jungle man “, brought years of playing for Liverpool to the national cause. The mere fact of having a Liverpool player in the team raised our profile as a football nation. Bruce was popular with the fans and he had a unique way of connecting with them. He had always been known to be a bit of a joker and this went down well with the fans. Apart from that Kalusha header which caused a collective heartbreak for the nation, he had a really good campaign.

Mercedes “Rambo” Sibanda played at right back. He was a good defender with a powerful shot. He also had a way of raising the spirits of the fans. We might have forgotten, but Melusi Nkiwane also played a part. He was a cool defender who never panicked.

Captain Ephraim Chawanda was indeed the rock on which the team was built. He was nicknamed “The Rock of Gibraltar”, because of his enduring strength. The ability to chest the ball in his own area showed the confidence of the man. His partner in defence was Francis ”Sandura” Shonhayi. The man was a leader and a good reader of the game. His strength was his ability to win clean tackles, he committed very few fouls.

Norman Mapeza, nicknamed “Muchina Wemajuzi” for his neat play, was equally comfortable as a defender and midfielder. He always initiated attacks from the back and was a cool customer.

Paul “Simbi” Gundani was the unsung hero of the team. Every team needs grafters and Paul was one such, always doing a job for the team. We will always remember that thunderbolt against Cameroon, but above all we remember his fighting spirit.

They say dynamite comes in small packages and this was an apt description of Benjamin “Makanaky” Nkonjera. He was a bundle of energy, a man with a big heart in spite of his small stature. He ran and ran, chased lost causes and fought until the last minute. One other thing defined Benjy, his radiant smile, it always illuminated all the national team photos.

Alongside him was Willard “Mahwiii” Khumalo, a man of the people. Willard was every fan’s favourite player, his false gallop in the centre circle came to define the man.

Rahman”Rush” Gumbo was not the most popular player with the fans, they preferred Moses, but he did a job to the best of his ability. His screamer in the first match of the campaign silenced a few of his critics. I admit though that Moses could have added more creativity if he had been fully fit.

Memory “Mwendamberi” Mucherahowa also played in midfield and his energy and direct runs always caused problems for any opposition.

John Phiri was a permanent feature of the team both in defence and in midfield. He contributed to that great goal by Peter in the match against Angola.

In attack, the talent was immense. Peter Ndlovu was at his peak and already receiving rave reviews in England. Fans will remember his demolition of South Africa and that remarkable goal against Angola. His brother Adam was a willing runner and a committed Warrior. He was a gentleman on and off the pitch.

Vitalis”Digital” Takawira was a dribbling wizard and a deadly finisher. His hat-trick against Cameroon will live long in memory. Agent ”Ajira “ Sawu was a goal machine. The simple instruction was feed Agent and he will score. He never disappointed.

Henry “Bully “Mckop was a powerful striker who would constantly harass defenders. Later Fabisch converted him to a defender, proving his versatility.

Wilfred Mugeyi also played a supporting act so did Max Lunga and Madinda who still had pace to burn despite his advancing years.

Brenna Msiska was a permanent feature on the bench. Sunday”Mhofu” Marimo supported the head coach, so did Roy Barreto. Jimmy “Daddy “ Finch was indeed the father figure ensuring that everything ran smoothly.

Then of course there were the fans, all 60 000 of them, blacks, whites and Asians. It was indeed a multi-racial spectacle and the hunting song ”Yava nyama yekugocha” echoed in all four corners of the stadium. I have never seen such unity for a cause in post independence Zimbabwe.

Ultimately success eluded the team. Johan Cruyff, the legendary Dutch superstar once said”, Success?..i still have people congratulating me for the way we played the 1974 final”. Incidentally, the Dutch lost this final against Germany.

Perhaps this is the success we will always remember this team for, the way they played and how they united a nation. Fabisch, Willard, Shonhayi, Melusi, Mercedes, Nkonjera, Adam and now as we say farewell to the latest warrior to depart, we should remember the joy they brought us and wipe away our tears. Nehanda Radio