By Robson Sharuko
For a moment just forget the jackpot, an injection of at least another US$500 000 into their coffers, and think about the grand possibilities; an appealing duel against 2019 Afcon finals debutants Madagascar for a place in the quarter-finals of this tournament.
That’s the lottery ticket the misfiring Warriors dropped when they somehow conspired to fail to at least finish third in Group A after ending their campaign with a sorry 0-4 humbling defeat at the hands of the Leopards of the DR Congo last Sunday.
And now from their armchairs wherever they have gone, either on holiday or for painful some soul-searching exercises, the Warriors will have to watch from a distance as the Congolese try to clear the favourable hurdle erected by Madagascar for a place in the quarter-finals.
A Congolese team that refused to be destroyed by the weight of their challenges after losing their opening two matches and failing to score, and still believed it was never over until the fat old lady sung, will now take its place in the Round of 16 favoured to qualify for the quarter-finals.
The Warriors, whose soft belly when it comes to the big occasion was again crudely exposed, will now join their long suffering fans as witnesses of the show when, in reality, all they needed was probably to beat the Cranes, in a game where they had many chances, to be still fighting in this tournament.
They might have flown back home on Tuesday night, but this Afcon finals continues to tease them, and also inflict considerable pain on their fans, by throwing around some grand possibilities of what could have been had they not crashed out at the group stages.
Sunday Chidzambwa and his men left the Egyptian capital two days after their Nations Cup adventure ended in humiliation, in a match where victory would have thrust them into the knockout phase either as runners-up or one of the best four third-placed sides.
A lot of speculation on social media has wrongly claimed the Congolese needed a 4-0 victory to qualify as one of the four best third-placed teams, but the reality is that even if they had beaten the Warriors 1-0, they would still have made it to the knockout phase of the tourney.
Although such a scenario would have seen them finishing with a minus-three goal difference, among the teams that finished with three points, after conceding four goals and scoring once in their three group games, it would have been enough to earn a place as one of the best four third-placed finishers.
South Africa, with a minus one goal difference after scoring only one goal in the three matches, and Benin, with as many goals as they scored, would still also have taken the other slots reserved for the four best third-place finishers.
The way the draw was made always meant that, in the event a team from Group A finishing in third place took one of the four tickets reserved for the best third-place finishers, it would meet the winners of Group A in the Round of 16.
Ordinarily, that should have been a contest against the Super Eagles until the Nigerians made a mess of their final group match against Madagascar, losing 0-2, and that will now see the Indian Ocean islanders taking on the DRC in Alexandria on Sunday in the Round of 16.
Lalaina Nomenjanahary and Carolus Andriamahitsinoro scored the goals that gave Madagascar the victory. And there are many fans of the Warriors who will be counting the cost of their team’s failure to finish even in third place, like the Congolese, and get what appears an easy route to the quarter-finals, with their arguments based on that their team would have been the one now playing Madagascar.
The very fact the Indian Ocean islanders, who skipped this year’s Cosafa Cup to prepare fully for this Afcon finals in France, are still even in the tournament, as proud group winners, is an insult to the Warriors given the pedigree of players in their camp.
After all, the Madagascar team is built around players who are drawn from some obscure teams in the French lower division leagues, including many amateur clubs, while they also drew some from the French Indian Ocean island of Reunion whose Caf Champions League representative once conceded seven goals against Dynamos at the National Sports Stadium.
The teams that provide players to this Madagascar side include Arras, an amateur French Division 5 team, FC Martigues and FC Fluery, who are also amateur sides in France Clermont Foot 63, Paris FC, Troyes, Reims and Grenoble, who are all part of the French second-tier league.
They even drew a player from Thai club Samut Sakhon, one from their domestic league CNaPS Sport, two from the island of Reunion, one from Bulgarian side Ludogorets Razgrad and another one from United States Major League Soccer team Minnesota United.
But, the real story is about their coach in Egypt, Nicolas Dupuis, who has two jobs; one coaching the Madagascar national team and another coaching French Fourth Division outfit FC Fleury because football authorities on the Indian Ocean island do not have enough financial resources to employ him full-time.
“Both teams are close to my heart. You have to organise things carefully to manage to do both,” he revealed here. “But working at both locations also inspires me. The lads are growing closer and closer together. We’re like one big family. I am very proud of my players.”
He is 51 and never played football beyond the amateur ranks in France and in his first Afcon finals adventure, he will now lead his team to a Round of 16 match against the two-time African champions.
The Madagascar players, whose domestic league isn’t even professional, say they have been using this tournament to cheer the spirits of their people back home after recent spates of tragedies at the stadium, where they play their matches, claimed a number of lives and left scores injured.
Maybe, it’s something that has been lacking among these Warriors as not even one of them dared to mention that they were playing to cheer the spirits of their country which, this year, was pounded by a cyclone that destroyed many lives and homes in the eastern side of the country.
Round of 16 Draw
Egypt vs South Africa, Madagascar vs DRC, Nigeria vs Cameroon, Senegal vs Uganda, Algeria vs Guinea, Morocco vs Benin, Mali vs Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana vs Tunisia.
2019 Afcon prize money
Champions: US$4 million, Runners-up: US$2 million, Semi-finalists: US$1.5 million, Quarter-finalists: US$800,000, Groups/third: US$575,000, Groups/fourth: US$475,000, Total: $16.4 million. The Chronicle