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The Olympic sweethearts who wrote Zim football story of the decade

By Robson Sharuko

It was the beautiful story that cheered the world and eclipsed the Miracle of Kinshasa which exploded just two months before the 45th anniversary of the Rumble in the Jungle.

THE DARLINGS OF ZIMBABWEAN FOOTBALL . . . The Mighty Warriors team that made history by becoming the first team from this country to qualify for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2016 (standing from left) Lindiwe Magwede, Emmaculate Msipa, Lynett Mutokuto, Marjory Nyaumwe, Kudakwashe Bhasopo, Rudo Neshamba, (crouching from left) Eunice Chibanda, Sheila Makoto, Rutendo Makore, Nobuhle Majika and Talent Mandaza
THE DARLINGS OF ZIMBABWEAN FOOTBALL . . . The Mighty Warriors team that made history by becoming the first team from this country to qualify for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2016 (standing from left) Lindiwe Magwede, Emmaculate Msipa, Lynett Mutokuto, Marjory Nyaumwe, Kudakwashe Bhasopo, Rudo Neshamba, (crouching from left) Eunice Chibanda, Sheila Makoto, Rutendo Makore, Nobuhle Majika and Talent Mandaza

The Cinderella adventure, which deservedly grabbed glowing headlines across the globe, and brought those trailblazers to the gates of football paradise.

Right into the home of Pele, Jairzinho, Tostao, Falcao, Romario, Rivellino, Careca, Carlos Alberto, Zico, Garrincha, Socrates and, of course, the original Ronaldo.

And, there, they played on the very famed pitches which have been the breeding grounds for some of the world’s greatest football superstars whose skills illuminated this game and gave it its touch of beauty.

Somehow, against all odds, including a chaotic domestic football leadership that appeared desperate to destroy their dreams, they marched until they reached the Promised Land.

By a considerable distance, it was Zimbabwe’s football story of the decade.

The past decade when the country’s tormented national sport flirted with the absurd — including a ban from World Cup qualifiers — and also touched the heavens.

Take a bow to the Mighty Warriors.

They might no longer resemble what they used to be — their potency eroded by the sins of their leaders, their brilliance diluted by the madness that has reduced them into second-rate team simply because they are women.

They now even collapse to a 0-5 humiliation at the hands of their Zambian counterparts, and it all looks normal, and they even boycott matches they are supposed to host.

Along the way, some people forgot about them.

Forgot to give them the residential stands they had promised them while some even stole the watches and phones that were supposed to be given to these Mighty Warriors.

Some, as is the case now, chose not to pay them anything.

It’s that toxic combination that has reduced them into the punching bags that they have become today.

And, these days they are even choosing to stay at home rather than turn up at the stadium for a match they are hosting.

But, before they became these walking shadows, they were real Mighty Warriors.

And, in one great adventure, they wrote Zimbabwe football’s greatest story this past decade.

It started in defeat, just across the Zambezi on May 31, 2015, and ended in ecstasy at Rufaro on October 18, that same year, as the Mighty Warriors became the first Zimbabwean national team to reach the Olympics.

The team’s poster girl, Rudo Neshamba, gave them a priceless away goal in a 1-2 defeat in Lusaka, in the beginning, before a 1-0 win at Rufaro earned them victory on away goals and a place in the next round.

Then, their journey took a bizarre twist.

ZIFA could not secure funds for them to travel to Cote d’Ivoire and FIFA awarded the match to the Ivorians on a 3-0 scoreline.

CAF initially said the Mighty Warriors had been disqualified but FIFA ruled otherwise and said the Ivorians should travel to Harare because women football was about development.

The Ivorians didn’t arrive for the reverse fixture, basing their decision on the information they had received from CAF, and FIFA rescheduled it again.

This time, the West Africans withdrew and Zimbabwe, without kicking a ball in that round, were through to the final qualifier against Cameroon.

There were shades of the Dream Team’s 1994 World Cup qualifying battle which ended at the final hurdle in Yaounde.

Neshamba struck again, to give her side a surprise lead in Yaoundé, but the West Africans hit back and won the first leg 2-1.

Then, on October 18, 2015, Neshamba again found the target — scoring the most decisive goal in the history of Zimbabwean football — and the Cameroonians could not respond.

And, just like that, the Mighty Warriors were on their way to dreamland.

At least, this time, their journey would not be compromised as it was being sponsored by the local Olympic Committee.

They didn’t win a match in Brazil but they dominated the headlines because, just by being there, and the odds they had defied, made them the sweethearts of the tournament.

That trailblazing adventure gives the Mighty Warriors the award for the Team of the Decade in Zimbabwean football.

Somehow, they found a way to eclipse the Warriors’ two appearances at the AFCON finals and that incredible win in Kinshasa where they beat DRC 2-1 in a 2019 Nations Cup qualifier.

With just two months before the world marked the 45th anniversary of the Rumble in the Jungle, there was always a feeling something very beautiful would happen.

The problem was that no one knew what it was.

But it came to pass when Muhammad Ali’s finest hour in Kinshasa was scripted, just two months before the 45th anniversary of his greatest victory, by a band of fearless Warriors.

In the very same city, and stadium, where the greatest sportsman to ever live wrote the chapter that would define his career and his legacy.

Ronald Pfumbidzai and Knowledge Musona scores the goals that powered the Warriors to a landmark 2-1 victory, the highlight of a decade when they made it to two AFCON finals.

However, their banishment from the 2018 World Cup qualifiers will always be the low point of the decade.

BEST TEAM PERFORMANCE OF

THE DECADE

Mighty Warriors 1, Cameroon 0; Rufaro, October 18, 2015 (2016 Olympic Games qualifiers)

WORST TEAM PERFORMANCE OF

THE DECADE

DRC 4, Zimbabwe 0; 30 June Air Defence Stadium, Cairo, Egypt, June 30, (2019 AFCON finals Group A game)

BEST INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCE

OF THE DECADE

Knowledge Musona (hat-trick) Zimbabwe 3, Liberia 0; National Sports Stadium, June 11, 2017 (2019 AFCON qualifier)

WORST INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCE

OF THE DECADE

Elvis Chipezeze, Zimbabwe 0, DRC 4; June 30, 2019, Air Defence Stadium, Cairo, Egypt (2019 AFCON Group A match)

WARRIORS’ TEAM OF THE

DECADE (4-4-2)

Goalkeeper: George Chigova

Right Back: Hardlife Zvirekwi

Left-Back: Onismor Bhasera

Centre-back: Costa Nhamoinesu

Centre-back: Teenage Hadebe

Right Midfield: Ovidy Karuru

Left Midfield: Khama Billiat

Defensive Midfielder: Willard Katsande

Central Midfielder: Marvelous Nakamba

Striker: Knowledge Musona

Striker: Nyasha Mushekwi

FOOTBALLERS OF THE DECADE

Knowledge Musona/ Khama Billiat (Tie)

Third place — Rudo Neshamba

TEAM OF THE DECADE

Mighty Warriors (Rio Olympics)

COACH OF THE DECADE

Callisto Pasuwa (for winning six league titles and taking the Warriors to the AFCON finals)

ADMINISTRATOR OF THE DECADE

Mavis Gumbo (for reviving women’s football)

REFEREE OF THE DECADE

Norman Matemera (for rejecting a US$10 000 bribe in Equatorial Guinea)

SUPER FAN OF THE DECADE

Alvin (Aluvah) Zhakata (for that amazing Cape to Cairo road trip)

JOURNALIST OF THE DECADE

Farai Mungazi (BBC Sport, for setting the trends for Zimbabwean journalists and always helping his colleagues from home at major tournaments)

FEEL-GOOD STORY OF THE DECADE

Marvelous Nakamba rising from Hwange to sign for English Premiership side Aston Villa

SUPER STORY OF THE DECADE

Nyasha Mushekwi spending a considerable fortune to buy CAPS United a luxurious team bus as a gift to the Green Machine for the role they played in his career.

Special Mention — FC Platinum (for becoming the first team outside Harare and Bulawayo in more than half a century to be crowned Zimbabwe league champions); Dynamos (for winning four straight league titles); Bulawayo Chiefs (for leading the way in the Twitter generation for local clubs) Delta Beverages (for being football’s all-weather friends); NetOne (for ensuring the Big Boys didn’t collapse); Prophet Walter Magaya (for giving the Warriors, Young Warriors and Mighty Warriors a decent home); Wicknell Chivayo (for saving the Warriors 2022 World Cup campaign). The Herald

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