By Robson Sharuko
The three-nation battle, featuring Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana, to secure a ticket to the AFCON finals, could be influenced by the tough Covid-19 regulations, enforced by British authorities, for entry into their country.
The Warriors travel to Gaborone, for a date against the Zebras, on March 22, in the penultimate match of the qualifiers, before hosting Chipolopolo, a week later, in the final round of fixtures.
One ticket, to accompany African champions Algeria to Cameroon, is at stake when the curtain comes down, in the qualifiers, and any of the three countries could secure it.
With five points, the Warriors have the best chance, and can secure their place in Cameroon, with victory over the Zebras, should Chipolopolo fail to beat the Desert Foxes in Zambia.
However, the race could go to the wire, with the final round of matches (Zimbabwe vs Zambia) and (Algeria vs Botswana) deciding this three-nation battle.
But, it now appears, Covid-19, which has had a huge impact on sport across the world, could have a huge influence, too, in this race.
The decision by British authorities, to tighten entrance into their country, from those who would have passed through a list of countries, including Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia, which they have flagged, could have an impact on the duel for the sole ticket.
The other countries, included on the red list, are Angola, Argentina, Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Burundi, Cape Verde, Chile, Colombia, DRC, Ecuador, Eswatini, French Guiana, Guyana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Portugal, Rwanda, Seychelles, South Africa, Suriname, Tanzania, United Arab Emirates, Uruguay and Venezuela.
British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced that travellers heading back to the United Kingdom, from the so-called “red list” countries, will be “met at the airport and transported directly into quarantine.
“In order to reduce the risk posed by UK nationals and residents returning home from these countries, I can announce that we will require all such arrivals who cannot be refused entry to isolate in Government-provided accommodation such as hotels for 10 days, without exception.”
Elite sports-persons, who in the past were exempted from having to satisfy the requirements, which apply to others, will not enjoy that privilege, if they are coming from the flagged countries.
They will now be ordered to undergo a 10-day quarantine, according to the Press Association news agency, at an airport hotel, which cost £1 750.
While the cost is insignificant, especially for footballers earning as much as £60 000 a week, the inconvenience, which comes with being forced to stay in a quarantine at an airport hotel, for 10 days, is a problem.
Especially, given that the footballers will be forced to spend the 10 days, without playing for their employers, and this could force some of them, to reconsider flying home for the qualifiers.
The Warriors have two regulars, midfield enforcer Marvelous Nakamba and defender Tendayi Darikwa, who could be affected by the latest regulations.
Algeria have two regulars, star forward Riyad Mahrez, who plays for Manchester City, and tricky midfielder, Said Benrahma, who is now on the books of West Ham, who could also be affected.
Benrahma provided the cross-field assist which Mahrez gobbled, at the National Sports Stadium in November, with a deft connection to take control of the ball, before going on a mazy run, and finishing with aplomb, for the Desert Foxes’ second goal in the 2-2 draw. With the Algerians having already qualified, for the AFCON finals, the Desert Foxes could be forced to rest the likes of Mahrez and Benrahma for the two matches against Botswana and Zambia.
Such an arrangement could significantly weaken the African champions, giving both Zambia and Botswana, a chance to get the result they want, to brighten their chances of making it to Cameroon.
This could work against the Warriors on two fronts.
For, while facing the possibility of fielding a side, weakened by the absence of some of their main players, the Warriors could see those, in direct competition with them for a place in Cameroon, benefiting from playing the weakened Desert Foxes.
Already, Manchester City manager, Pep Guardiola, has sparked the debate, about releasing his players for international duty next month, in a clear message the gaffer could be forced to block the likes of Mahrez.
“The Premier League should be concerned about this,” Guardiola told BBC Sport. “The only way to be protected from this virus is to stay at home and social distance.
“No contact, don’t travel, don’t move.
“Now the players are going to their national teams and it is difficult, afterwards, to control it. So, unfortunately, something is going to rise.
“I would love to say it is not going to happen but, from experience, it happened in two or three waves already. If you move, you take a risk to be contaminated.”
FIFA have already advised clubs they can decide not to release their Portuguese, and South American players, for international duty, next month.
Guardiola has sparked a debate, which is likely to gather strength, in the coming days with clubs trying to find the best way to deal with the situation.
Nakamba’s Aston Villa were forced to field a severely weakened side, made up mainly of emerging players, in their FA Cup match against Liverpool, last month.
Club chief executive, Christian Purslow, revealed the Villans took that gamble after 14 of their first team players returned positive Covid-19s test results ahead of their FA Cup third round clash against the Reds.
The club’s Under-23s manager, Mark Delaney, led that team of youngsters while Villa were forced to shut their Bodymoor Heath training ground, while also cancelling training, following the Covid-19 outbreak.
“We became aware of significant spike in positive coronavirus tests within our first team squad,” Purslow told Sky Sports News, back then.
“In the last six days, we went from no positives tests to 14 tests.
“Ten of the 14 positive tests are for players. Obviously, at that moment, we had to take the decision to get everybody inside the first team squad in isolation.’’ The Herald