By Robson Sharuko
Zimbabwe’s Warriors kept their first clean sheet on the road, in an AFCON qualifier in 13 years, when they beat Botswana’s Zebras 1-0 in Francistown on Thursday night.
The victory, coupled with Zambia’s failure to beat African champions Algeria, in Lusaka a few hours later, helped the Warriors to book their place, at the 2021 Nations Cup finals, in Cameroon, next January.
It’s the first time the Warriors will also feature at three successive AFCON finals, which represents a stunning turnaround, for a team which failed to book a place at the showcase, in the first 22 years of battles on the continent.
Newboy Perfect Chikwende was hailed as the hero, after his maiden goal for his country, fired Zimbabwe to victory in Francistown, and cleared the passage for the Warriors, to once again play at the Nations Cup finals.
Captain Knowledge Musona, and his generation of Warriors, have transformed themselves into a unit which consistently appears, at the Nations Cup finals, in recent years.
They have also turned themselves into the leading light, in Southern Africa, when it comes to the qualifying battles, for a place at Africa’s biggest football showcase.
On Thursday, the Warriors became the first nation, from mainland Southern Africa, to book their place at the next AFCON finals.
They also beat both Zambia, and Botswana, in their backyard, during these qualifiers, as if to crush any lingering doubts that, when it comes to fighting for a place at the Nations Cup finals, they have become the team to beat in this part of the continent.
Indian Ocean islanders, Comoros, who play in the COSAFA tournaments, also booked their place in Cameroon, next year, the first time they will feature at the continent’s biggest football show.
A goalless draw against Togo handed Comoros the ticket to Cameroon, helping them to emerge from a group that had record African champions, Egypt, who also qualified, and Kenya.
“Who might have imagined when qualification for Cameroon began that we would go into our final group fixture level on points with Egypt?,” Comoros coach, Amir Abdou, told the Reuters news agency.
“It’s the culmination of a long process and it’s also a great victory to be tied with Egypt. The pride I feel for my country is indescribable… Together we have created history.”
It was also an historic campaign for Zimbabwe coach, Zdravko Logarusic, who became the first foreign gaffer to guide the Warriors to the AFCON finals.
Although Loga won just one match, the 1-0 victory over Botswana, it was enough for his team to complete their mission, with a game to spare, ahead of their Zambezi Derby battle against Zambia in Harare on Monday.
The Croatian gaffer took over the campaign from Joey Antipas, who had picked a win and a draw, in the Warriors’ opening matches, and a similar sequence of results, helped Loga take his men past the line.
And, there was also another record for Loga, in that match against Botswana, as it marked the first time the Warriors had come out with a clean sheet, in an AFCON qualifier, away from home, in 13 years.
The last time they managed to prevent the opposition, from breaching their defensive line, in a Nations Cup qualifier, on the road, was in Conakry on May 31, 2008, in the 2010, against Guinea.
Under the guidance of Brazilian coach Valinhos, and captained by Benjani, the Warriors held the West Africans to a goalless draw at the September 28, Stadium, in their first match in the 2010 AFCON qualifiers.
However, after a 2-0 win over Namibia at Rufaro, things went downhill, from there, as the Warriors lost by the same scoreline in Kenya and were humbled 2-4 in Windhoek, by the Brave Lions.
Along the way, from the time they held Guinea to a goalless draw in Conakry, the Warriors had played 15 AFCON matches, on the road, winning just two, drawing four and losing nine.
They had not enjoyed a clean sheet until Loga and his men did just that on Thursday night in Francistown.
Yesterday, ZIFA congratulated the Warriors for securing a third straight appearance at the AFCON finals and called on all the stakeholders to work together for the team to get stronger and do well at the showcase.
“The Zimbabwe Football Association executive committee congratulates the Warriors for their important victory against Botswana, and eventual qualification for the Cameroon AFCON finals,’’ a statement released by their spokesperson, Xolisani Gwesela, read.
“Three successive appearances at the finals and qualifying with a game on hand, by some players in the current team, shows much progress we are making as a football nation.
“Thank you to the record-breaking group.
“We are grateful to the efforts of the entire ZIFA executive committee, Council, Secretariat and other well-meaning stakeholders whose tireless efforts ensured that we emerged triumphant.
“It was not an easy campaign, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but the commitment of the players, and the technical team to the cause, was never shaken.
“That the team shone brightly, at a moment when some would have believed it was weak, is a true reflection of the Warrior spirit in them.
“ZIFA would like to thank the Sport and Recreation Commission (SRC) and the Government for providing an enabling environment that ensured this historic qualification.
“We are confident that with government support, football will inevitably contribute to the growth and development of our economy.’’
ZIFA said the team will always be guaranteed of their support.
“We shall continue to support the team’s activities so that it continues to give Zimbabwe reason to celebrate. It’s never easy in our situation, but the spirit of the team continues to encourage ZIFA to do its best in all circumstances,’’ read the statement.
“What Zimbabwe can learn from the Warriors is that team work and shared objectives lead to success.
“We appeal to all Zimbabweans to support the team and the association so that our results reflect the abundant talent in our country.
“ZIFA appeals to all stakeholders including corporates and the media to use this uniting opportunity to seal permanent relationships and smart objective partnerships.
“Unity for common purpose will enable all our sporting teams to succeed. Heartfelt gratitude goes to our supporters who have been denied the chance to celebrate physically with our football heroes when they return home tonight and during the match against Zambia on Monday.
‘’Football is for us all, and without each other it becomes less fulfilling.’’ The Herald