By Langton Nyakwenda
Lazarus Muhoni did not need to be reminded that he was a marked man as Zimbabwe prepared for their debut match at the 20014 Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia.
The majority of local fans did not have much confidence in the then Black Rhinos man. However, Muhoni was a favourite of coach Sunday “Mhofu” Chidzambwa and it came as no surprise when the veteran coach named him in his starting XI for the game against Egypt.
Chidzambwa had done his best to psyche up Muhoni but nothing the coach said could have prepared the midfielder for what he saw in the tunnel on January 25, 2004. The sight of Egyptian legend Mohammed Barakat all pumped up sucked out his confidence.
“I panicked when I saw the likes of Barakat and Wael Goma in that tunnel,” said Muhoni as he reminisced on the day the Warriors made their Afcon debut.
“Our coach Mhofu had urged us to have self belief when we were still in the dressing room. ‘Those Egyptians have two legs and two eyes each just like you Warriors!’ he told us.
“But those Egyptians had big name players in their line-up, some of them were playing in Europe and I was coming from Black Rhinos. It was a difficult transition.”
Muhoni’s first touch was always going to be crucial and he knew it.
“I controlled the ball and passed, controlled it again and passed and that’s when I realised football was the same everywhere.“I felt like I was playing at Rufaro or Barbourfields and my nerves settled,” he said.The Warriors eventually lost 1-2 but Muhoni felt he had done his best to defend the country’s flag.
Now 40 and managing Black Rhinos’ junior teams, Muhoni can’t forget how difficult it was to break into the Warriors first eleven back then.
“It was even tougher for me knowing that the majority of fans didn’t trust my capabilities.“But the coach had faith in me, he would tell me how he valued my ability to get into scoring areas. He liked the frequency with which I found myself in the box as well as my commitment,” he said.
Muhoni shot to national prominence on September 8, 2002 when he scored the solitary goal that sunk Mali in an Afcon qualifier played in front of 50 000 fans at the National Sports Stadium.
That is how he got the nickname “Mali”.And he still vividly remembers the move that led to that “super goal.”
“Lloyd Chitembwe and Esrom Nyandoro exchanged passes in the centre of the park, the ball was switched to the wing where Peter (Ndlovu) was waiting.
“He dribbled past two defenders and at the same time I was running on the blind side into the box. He crossed, the ball missed everyone except me and I pressed it home.“I didn’t know how to celebrate but Benjani rushed to me and told me to remove my shirt. It was then that I started celebrating.” The Sunday Mail