By Robson Sharuko
They went pound-for-pound with a galaxy of Nigerian stars who slayed Brazil, and then shocked Argentina, on their way to winning Olympic gold in Atlanta in 1996.
And, they gave as much as they got in two fiery battles.
But, a quarter-of-a-century after their Cinderella campaign got underway, those Young Warriors are rarely talked about when domestic football goes down memory lane to remember its finest sons and teams.
No one knows where fate would have taken them, had Kennedy Nagoli, Peter Ndlovu and Gilbert Mushangazhike featured in their final qualifier, for the football tournament of the ‘96 Olympics, against those star-studded Nigerians.
The Flying Elephant had just come back from injury, in the very week the Young Warriors took on the Nigerians in the first leg at Rufaro, with a ticket for a place in Atlanta on the line for the team which emerged victorious.
Midfield star Nagoli was stuck at his Brazilian side Santos, and was not released for the assignment, while Mushangazhike, who was now on the books of German third-tier side BSV Kickers Emden, did not respond to calls from ZIFA to come home for this Mother of All Battles.
Even regular goalkeeper Gift Muzadzi missed the duels, leading the predominantly Dynamos crowd at Rufaro to relentlessly boo his replacement, Muzondiwa Mugadza, despite the latter’s heroics, in a losing cause, for his country that afternoon.
For these Young Warriors, the campaign had started in April 1995.
They crushed Malawi 4-0 on aggregate before a 1-1 draw at home, courtesy of a last-gasp equaliser for the hosts in the second leg against Zambia in August at Rufaro, appeared to have ended their dreams of making it to Atlanta.
But, like true Warriors, they fought gallantly at the Independence Stadium in Lusaka and goals by Elasto Lungu Kapowezha, his fourth of the qualifiers, and George Mbwando, powered them to a 2-1 victory and 3-2 aggregate triumph.
That victory took the Young Warriors within touching distance of a place at the Olympics, which would have been an historic achievement in Zimbabwean football given that, until then, none of the country’s representative sides had featured at the globe’s biggest sporting showcase.
But, the Nigerians, who included some players who had featured in their country’s AFCON triumph just two years earlier, and some of the most exciting emerging footballers on the continent, provided a difficult final hurdle for those Young Warriors.
However, for 82 minutes of an intense contest at Rufaro on March 16, 1996, the Young Warriors, with midfield enforcer Methembe Ndlovu playing the game of his life, stood toe-to-toe against the Nigerians and the outcome of the match still hung in the balance.
The quality of that Nigerian side had been there for everyone to see, with Jay Jay Okocha pulling the strings in midfield, Nwanko Kanu a threat upfront and Tijani Babangida causing havoc on either flank but, to their credit, the Young Warriors had somehow kept them at bay.
At times, the hosts had been forced to ride their luck, with two Nigerian efforts being cleared off the line, and two others hitting the post, while Mugadza fought gallantly as the last man in defence but, as they say in football, a team creates its luck.
However, with just seven minutes left on the clock, Okocha picked Kanu and, with the home defence having massed itself around this lanky and tricky forward, named yesterday by former Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger as his best January signing during his time at the Gunners, it left other parts exposed.
Kanu switched the ball to the other side and Teslim Fatusi hit it first time, his effort kissing the upright before bobbling home into the nets for the only goal of the match.
A few weeks later, the Nigerians completed their mission with another tight 1-0 win over the Young Warriors in Nigeria to qualify for the Olympics.
But, it’s what happened, a few weeks later in the United States, which provided confirmation, if any was needed, that this was a special team of Young Warriors and they had just been unlucky to meet the best side in the world, by then.
The Nigerians beat Hungary 1-0, through a goal from Kanu, in their opening match at the Olympics, before defeating Japan 2-0 courtesy of a goal by Okocha and an own goal by Tadahiro Akiba.
Although they lost their third group match, 0-1 to Brazil, with the great Ronaldo on target for the South Americans, the Nigerians made it into the quarter-finals where they easily beat Mexico 2-0, thanks to goals from Okocha and Celestine Babayaro.
Then, in a dramatic semi-final, they were staring elimination as they trailed Brazil 2-3, with 90 minutes up on the clock, before Kanu struck, right at the end and then added a golden goal for a remarkable victory and a place in the final.
They fell behind early against Argentina when Claudio Lopez fired the South Americans into the lead in the final but Babayaro equalised, Hernan Crespo put the Argentines back into the lead from the spot, Daniel Amakochi equalised again and, then, right at the end, Emmanuel Amunike hit home the winner.
A very powerful Nigerian side, which scored more than half-a-dozen goals against Brazil and Argentina, had only managed to squeeze home two goals against the gritty Young Warriors in the final qualifier for the Olympics.
Some of the Zimbabwean players who featured in those two battles against the Nigerians were Mugadza, Vusi Laher, Butler Masango, Dumisani Mpofu, Chamu Musanhu, Alex Munawa, Alois Bunjira, Methembe Ndlovu, Abel and Cain Muteji, Stewart Murisa, Mbwando and Kapowezha.
Many of these players had won silver, at the 1995 All-African Games, losing the final 1-3 to Egypt, and — a few months later, took on the world’s best team, in that Nigerian side, and their indomitable spirit shone brightly in those two encounters.
What if they had not run into that Nigerian side, in that final qualifier?
No one knows what they could have achieved, had they gone all the way to Atlanta, but what isn’t in doubt, is that this was a very good Young Warriors side.
Sadly, they don’t get the credit they deserve, when local fans talk about some of the great national teams of the past. The Herald