By Eddie Chikamhi
The battle of the Zambezi will, for the first time, miss the important ingredient, which usually fires it, when Zimbabwe host Zambia in an AFCON qualifier next month.
The match is expected to be played behind closed doors, in accordance with the recommendations from CAF and health experts, in the fight to curb the spread of coronavirus.
However, ZIFA are still waiting for the feedback from CAF, to confirm if the Warriors will be allowed to play the match at the National Sports Stadium, following the latest round of inspections conducted on all venues across the continent.
The first match, between the two Southern Africa rivals, was played before a solid crowd of 40 000 at Rufaro on April 20, 1980, in the highly charged final of a four-nation Independence celebrations tournament that also featured Mozambique and Malawi.
Successive meetings have strengthened the rivalry. Former Zimbabwe international, David Mandigora, who featured in that first match, yesterday said the upcoming AFCON qualifier, will be a derby with a different outlook.
“It’s unfortunate that fans will not be allowed into this game. Personally, I would have wanted to go and watch this game but this is beyond anyone’s control,” said Mandigora.
“But, we all know how much the fans have contributed to give this Derby it’s true meaning.
“Mostly, this is not about the 22 players on the pitch.
“I remember the first game we played against Zambia in 1980. We played before a capacity crowd at Rufaro and the fans helped turn the game on its head in the final of a four-nation tournament.
“Eventually we won the game 2-1, having come from a goal down, but the Zambians were not happy. It has been like that over the years.
“The home team always enjoys that advantage.
“So, the Zimbabwe players are likely to feel the emptiness. It’s not easy playing in a big ground like the National Sports Stadium with no fans inside.
“You are not likely to get the maximum, of what you should get at home, except the familiarity with the turf.
“Hopefully, our boys will win this one despite the situation,” said Mandigora.
Zimbabwe and Zambia have played more than 50 times, since independence in 1980, and the clashes have always been explosive.
The Battle of Zambezi derby matches usually come with a big pay cheque, for the home side, because of the big attendance figures. ZIFA spokesperson, Xolisani Gwesela, said it was unfortunate the game has come in the middle of a pandemic.
Unlike other countries, such as Tanzania, who have been allowed a certain percentage of fans into the stadium for their international matches, the situation with Zimbabwe is different, as the county is currently under a national lockdown.
“Fans are key but we are living in abnormal times where, in previous matches, we have not allowed fans into the stadium, due to the prevalence of coronavirus cases.
“CAF have also indicated that, in order to mitigate the negative effects of coronavirus and to reduce transmission, we should have stadiums free of fans.
“The issue of fans is also guided by Government policy.
“Whether the Government, through the Sports Commission who are the regulatory body, allows us to have fans in the stadium, we will stand guided by them.
“But, once we have been allowed by the Government, then we will approach CAF for further authorisation,” said Gwesela.
Before hosting Zambia on March 30, the Warriors will have to travel to Botswana for the penultimate round of the qualifiers.
The Warriors, who are looking for a fifth appearance at the 2021 AFCON finals, have so far amassed five points.
They are second in Group H.
Group leaders, Algeria, have since qualified for the finals, to be held in Cameroon, after taking their points tally to 10 and were unbeaten in four rounds of games.
Botswana and Zambia, who have four and three points respectively, still have good chances of qualifying in the last two rounds. The Herald