By Robson Sharuko
Twenty-five years have passed since he blew his whistle for the final time but Gambian referee, Alhaji Ebrima Faye, has absolutely no doubt about his biggest assignment.
It’s a career in which he flirted with controversy and even the absurd scenario of doubling up, both as a referee and a match commissioner, during a ‘90 World Cup qualifier in Monrovia in 1988.
What that meant, precisely, is Faye ended up providing an assessment, of his own performance, as Liberia beat Ghana 2-0, to knock the Black Stars out of the World Cup.
George Weah and James “Salinsa’’ Debbah were on target.
“I remember officiating a World Cup elimination round match between Liberia and Ghana in Liberia without proper security,’’ Faye told Gambian newspaper, The Chronicle, last year.
“I wasn’t comfortable at all. Every set-up of that fixture was poor. There was not even a match commissioner.
“So, I was the referee and, at the same time, played the role of a match commissioner. It was so irrational but I successfully handled that game. I will never forget about that.’’
Given he had assessed his own performance, maybe, the fact he ended up saying he did a good job, in that match, should be the least of the surprises.
However, for all the drama associated with that West African Derby, Faye — a veteran of 86 international matches until he retired in 1995 — doesn’t believe it was his biggest assignment.
Instead, he picked the blockbuster winner-take-all ‘94 World Cup qualifying shoot-out between the Warriors and the Indomitable Lions on October 10, 1993, at the Stade Ahmadou Ahidjo in Yaounde.
“That was just the biggest match in the World Cup qualifiers and I was selected to handle it,’’ he said.
“It felt so great.”
But, to millions of Zimbabweans, memories of that showdown, when their Warriors came closest to reaching the World Cup finals — needing a victory to be part of the cast which played in the United States — are not cast in such golden glow.
Instead, the showdown in Yaounde represents one of the most painful chapters in the history of the Warriors.
They crashed to a 1-3 defeat, in controversial circumstances, with the Gambian referee playing a key role in that loss with his questionable officiating.
A contentious 15th minute penalty provided Francois Omam-Biyik with the perfect chance to put the Indomitable Lions into the lead, and calm the nerves of the hosts, and an estimated 85 000 fans, before the gangly forward doubled their lead 13 minutes later.
The late Adam Ndlovu reduced the arrears for the Warriors, with a goal five minutes after the break, to restore hope for the visitors.
But, a last-minute goal by Emmanuel Maboang Kessack sealed the victory for the Indomitable Lions.
“After the penultimate set of fixtures of the second group phase, Zimbabwe found themselves again one win shy of the target,’’ Ian Hawkey, a leading expert on African football, had noted in his article on the Blizzard, a quarterly football journal available on a pay-what-you-like basis in print and digital formats.
“They had to go to Yaoundé and beat the Indomitable Lions to be one of the trio of African sides at the 1994 World Cup.
“For a while, the dream flickered on. When, five minutes into the second half, Adam Ndlovu scored, a hush came over the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium, a brief respite from a noise Grobbelaar describes as “like a swarm of angry bees, ringing in your ears.” “But Cameroon were already two goals up by then. Once they added a third, Zimbabwe were broken.
“On the touchline, (coach Reinhard) Fabisch started throwing US dollar bills around, implying the referee (Faye, who had given a contentious early penalty in favour of Cameroon, had been bought.
“Zim’s Dream Team had been 11 minutes from a first-ever Cup of Nations. They had been one win from reaching the US. They had neither.’’ Fabisch was suspended for a year, by CAF, for that act and the Dream Team’s adventure was over.
That’s why, even 27 years after his questionable show in Yaounde, and a quarter-of-a-century after his retirement, Faye’s name is yet to fade from the narrative of Zimbabwean football.
To millions of Zimbabweans, he is the Devil incarnate, the epitome of evil, the man who helped destroy their World Cup dreams when the Dream Team reached the gates of the Promised Land only to be repelled by some forces of darkness.
Some analysts have claimed the Warriors faced Mission Impossible in that assignment given a big part of the globe, including some within the FIFA establishment, still wanted the Indomitable Lions to return to the World Cup finals.
Roger Milla and his teammates had captured the imagination of the globe, three years earlier at Italia ‘90, becoming the first African country to reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup only to be knocked out by England.
They had beaten then World Cup holders, Diego Maradona and his Argentina, knocked out Colombia and even led England 2-1 before the Three Lions fought back with a penalty from Gary Lineker, with just seven minutes left on the clock, to force the game into extra-time.
Lineker then converted another penalty to take England into the semi-finals.
“It appeared the Indomitable Lions fairytale had been cut short in cruel fashion in Italy and, when you consider Milla and his dances, and everything that went on during that World Cup, you can understand why the world still wanted more of them in the United States,’’ one analyst had noted.
That CAF, who were in charge of organising the match officials for the continent’s World Cup qualifiers, were led by a Cameroonian strongman, Issa Hayatou, didn’t appear to help the Warriors’ cause.
But, where the Indomitable Lions had dazzled in 1990, they were a shadow of that team four years later, providing further confirmation to suggestions they had been helped to get to the United States.
A 2-2 draw against Sweden only flattered to deceive as they were well beaten 0-3 by eventual champions Brazil before a 1-6 thrashing, at the hands of Russia, ended their sorry World Cup adventure in the United States.
The 10-year ban by FIFA on referee Ebrima Jallow, two years ago, for corruption at a time Faye, who turns 70 next year, was the Gambian referees’ boss, has also led to suggestions that some of events, back then, were not as straight forward as they appeared. The Herald