By Robson Sharuko
IT’S virtually impossible to escape the shadow Khama Billiat has cast on this city since Friday night — especially when your replica jerseys sell you out as a Zimbabwean, your accreditation confirms that identity and your passport shows that, just like him, you are also a Warrior.
Everywhere you go now, in this city of more than 20 million people — in its taxis that appear to be driven by retired Formula One drivers, in the corridors of its five-star hotels like the imposing Marriot on the edge of the Nile, where CAF leaders are based, or on a cruise down the Nile.
“Zimbabwe, Khama Billiat, good, very good,’’ those who speak in English tell you or “Zimbabwe, Khama Billiat, jayid jiddaan,’’ those who speak in Arabic, the majority in this city, try to tell you.
This is a city, and a country, that loves football and where Mohamed Salah is a virtual god, his face appears at every corner, in virtually every advert, on the roadside, on television, just about everywhere.
It’s also a city, and country, that knows good footballers, and appreciate them, and while Billiat’s name was trending here, long before he arrived for this AFCON adventure, his lively performance on Friday night has significantly boosted his appeal.
This time, last year, thousands, if not millions, of Zamalek fans signed an online petition to try and woo Billiat to this city to play for the White Knights, having been impressed by his performances in the CAF Champions League for Mamelodi Sundowns.
The Zimbabwean forward ended up choosing to sign for Kaizer Chiefs, to the disappointment of many here.
But, since Friday, the outpouring of love towards Billiat has been flowing from the other side, the Al Ahly establishment, with thousands of the team’s fans chanting his name inside the Cairo International Stadium and appealing to him to come and join the record African champions.
And, there is a big reason for that.
“For some, he was the shining light in the Warriors’ 1-0 defeat, a cut above the rest, and offered hope — despite their loss — that the southern Africans will escape from this tight and testing Group A,’’ Goal.com, the biggest online football publication in the world, and second largest online sports publication in the world (behind ESPN), said in their analysis.
“There was much to celebrate about Billiat’s performance, and on the day, he wasn’t outshone by the darling of the home supporters, Mohamed Salah, who often had trouble finding a way past Warriors left-back Divine Lunga.
“While Salah made 62 touches during the match, Billiat only managed slightly fewer on 60, and while the former was drawn deeper to get involved, the latter consistently took up threatening positions and proved a consistent menace for the Pharaohs’ backline.
“At times in the second half — and this isn’t an exaggeration — it wasn’t always evident which of the duo was the reigning Premier League top scorer and a Champions League winner, and who was playing in the PSL.’’
“Billiat’s first touch was simply sublime, as he was able to receive direct, long passes — often from the opposite flank — and in one fluid movement, control the ball and spin away from his marker into space,’’ said Goal.com in their analysis.
“Zimbabwe allowed him to enjoy the freedom of the left flank to start with, and he relished the time he enjoyed on the ball, although he was momentarily drawn into a central role, where the Egyptian centre-backs had appeared more comfortable dealing with the bustle and brute of Nyasha Mushekwi.
“His movement, footwork and technique were all exceptional, and there was one delicious moment when he evaded two Egyptian defenders, and the hapless pair collided into each other — like two drunks at closing time — as he whizzed away down the field.
“The fans in attendance could have been forgiven for questioning why Billiat was still playing in the South African top-flight — albeit with a giant in the form of Kaizer Chiefs — and not in a more rarefied environment.
“At 28, it’s not too late for the diminutive attacker to try his hand in Europe — there are clubs who would take him — but it was telling that when it was time for him to move on from Mamelodi Sundowns, Chiefs was his ultimate destination.
“Indeed, there were several times during the match when he played with the swagger and confidence of an Amakhosi frontman — no bad thing — but didn’t marry that with the humility, discipline, desire and decision-making that must come with being an underdog.’’
And, going forward, the people at Goal.com, which is published in 19 language versions covering more than 50 countries and has over 500 contributors, said there was hope for the Warriors and Billiat.
“There’s no doubt that Zimbabwe — and Billiat — have the quality to escape from this group and reach the knock-outs for the first time in their history,’’ they said.
“However, if the forward is going to realise the promise that his performance demonstrated, he must embrace humility, realise that he’s playing for an underdog rather than a top dog, and cut out the overplaying.
“If Billiat is focused, if he is clinical, if he adds an end product to his delightful build-up play, then this talented Zimbabwe team could yet take this tournament by storm.’’
Ironically, after the first game of the last AFCON finals in Gabon, when Zimbabwe held Algeria 2-2, the continent’s biggest football pundits went crazy about Billiat and asked what he was still doing playing in African football.
“I think it’s a very long time that I have seen such a player on the African continent. Who (else) can you imagine? Maybe Sadio Mane,’’ said Ghanaian legend Samuel Kuffour.
“He has everything, you see the dribbling and it wasn’t just one-on-one with the goalkeeper and every time that he does something you got to pay service.
“So, it tells me that maybe the likes of (Jay Jay) Okocha, the likes of maybe Samuel Eto’o or whoever, Abedi Pele, George Weah that comes to mind, but this guy can be another level. If he really wants it, I think he has to move to Europe.’’
Then, it was Franceville in Gabon that was paying respect to Billiat, now it’s Cairo. The Herald