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Fifteen years later, the Class of 2006 remains the benchmark

By Robson Sharuko

A private jet, a record transfer deal, a legend in his farewell show, and a sensational victory over the World Cup-bound Black Stars.

SO NEAR, YET SO FAR . . . The Warriors Class of 2006, seen here just before their AFCON group match against the Super Eagles of Nigeria in Port Said, Egypt, came closest to booking a place in the knockout stages of the tournament
SO NEAR, YET SO FAR . . . The Warriors Class of 2006, seen here just before their AFCON group match against the Super Eagles of Nigeria in Port Said, Egypt, came closest to booking a place in the knockout stages of the tournament

And, for goodness sake, throw in a very tight refereeing call which, ultimately, made the difference between success and failure.

For the Warriors’ Class of 2006, their AFCON finals adventure in the Land of the Pharaohs had just about everything, including, a brief flirtation with the joy and glory, which comes with securing a place in the knockout rounds.

Fifteen years later, it remains the closest the Warriors have come, to finding a way out of the group stages of Africa’s biggest football tournament.

The farce in Cairo, two years ago, where the Warriors crashed out of the Nations Cup finals bottom of their group, with a just a point to show for the chaos which stalked their adventure, suggests they have taken a number of steps backwards.

The four-goal humiliation, at the hands of the DRC, in their final match in Cairo, amid the infighting between the players and their leadership over bonuses, was testimony of how far the Warriors have lost their way,

But, 15 years ago, it wasn’t all doom and gloom.

Benjani Mwaruwari arrived in Cairo on a private jet, which had been hired by his new English Premiership side, Portsmouth, who had held on to their then record signing, as long as was possible.

With Harry Redknapp having splashed a record £4.1m to secure Benjani from French side Auxerre, on the recommendations of Arsenal’s legendary manager, Arsene Wenger, the Pompey boss was desperate to hold on to his newboy for some big January battles.

This meant Benjani could not join his Warriors, at a training camp in France, which he helped to fund for, a friendly international against the Atlas Lions in Morocco and another pre-tournament match against hosts Egypt.

While his teammates were in the trenches, preparing for the AFCON finals, Benjani was trying to make an immediate impression on his manager, and new fans, in two tough matches against Everton and Birmingham City.

Pompey lost both matches, 0-1 to Everton, with Leon Osman scoring the only goal, and 0-5 at Birmingham City, where Benjani had some two good chances, to open his account.

After the match at St Andrews, Portsmouth secured a private jet for Benjani, for the trip to Cairo, with the Warriors forward arriving in the company of his manager, Ralph Nkomo, for the national tour of duty.

He had not played in the 2004 AFCON finals, in Tunisia, where Peter Ndlovu again excelled, scoring three goals, as the Warriors marked their debut at the tournament in promising fashion, including a 2-1 victory over Algeria.

Now, after his big money move, all eyes, from the international media covering the tournament, were on Benjani and, for once, in a tourney featuring the Warriors, the talisman, Peter Ndlovu, had to be content with time in the shadows.

On January 23, in Port Said, Benjani was presented with the chance to justify all the buzz which was following him, when he found himself clear on goal but, somehow, directed his effort over the bar, in the match against Senegal.

With Henry Camara and Issa Ba scoring for the Teranga Lions, the Warriors were left wondering what might have been had Benjani drilled the ball home.

Four days later, coach Charles Mhlauri handed him the captain’s armband, in the absence of the Flying Elephant but, for the second straight game, the Warriors failed to score and were beaten 0-2 by the Super Eagles of Nigeria.

However, with the Nigerians having also beaten World Cup-bound Ghana, in their first match, it meant the Warriors still had a chance to squeeze, into the knockout rounds, should they beat the Black Stars, and the Teranga Lions fall to the Super Eagles.

The defining final group matches took place on January 31 and when Cephas Chimedza’s goal-bound effort was helped home by a scrambling Issa Gabriel, on the hour mark in Ismailia, the Warriors had hope.

Then, eight minutes later, Benjani ran clear of the Ghanaian defence, and this time, he couldn’t miss, poking the ball past the ‘keeper, to even boost his team’s hopes.

With Obafemi Martins having scored twice, to give the Super Eagles a 2-1 lead over the Teranga Lions, at that stage of the contest in the other match, all the Warriors needed was just another goal, for them to pull through.

In the final minute of regulation time, Joel Luphahla, coming in from the blind side, appeared to have delivered the most important goal, in the history of Zimbabwean football, only for the assistant referee to rule it out, in an offside call, based on the slimmest of margins.

With the Warriors euphoria having been deflated, and their heads having fallen, the Black Stars attacked and, three minutes into added time, they pulled a goal back.

This meant Senegal, Ghana and Zimbabwe all finished on three points but the Warriors and the Black Stars were knocked out because of an inferior goal difference.

It remains the closest the Warriors have come to negotiating their way out of the group stages of the Nations Cup finals.

There was no fanfare, when they returned home, this week, 15 years ago, with their sensational win over the Black Stars having been lost in the disappointment of their failure to reach the knockout stages.

It also marked the last major tournament for Peter Ndlovu.

However, six months later, when Ghana became the only African side to advance to the Second Round of the 2006 FIFA World Cup finals in Germany, the magnitude of what the Warriors had done, to beat such a star-studded side in Egypt, started to be fully appreciated.

It’s also a measure of how good those Warriors were that the two sides which beat them, in their group, Nigeria and Senegal, went all the way to the semi-finals of the 2006 Nations Cup finals. The Class of 2006 doesn’t get the respect, which they probably deserve, always overshadowed by those who made it to the 2004 AFCON finals, because it’s something that had not been done before.

But, they can’t force people to love them, after all, what they did in Egypt, especially the way they came very close to making history, remains a benchmark and no one can take that away from them. The Herald