The Sunday Mail
A team ranked number 121 in the world with one win in 19 matches squaring up against the continent’s best team that boasts of one of the best players on the globe is exactly what would be termed a mismatch if this was a boxing contest.
But such is the nature of tournament football, the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) finals included.
Zimbabwe, who last tasted victory in March 2021, open their campaign with a clash against 2019 finalists Senegal at the Stade Omnisports de Bafoussam in Bafoussam, Cameroon, tomorrow.
Kick-off is 3pm.
This will be the third meeting between the two nations at the biennial football showpiece.
The Warriors lost by an identical 0-2 scoreline on both occasions in 2006 and 2017.
Liverpool star forward Sadio Mane scored one of the goals in the 2017 duel, and the on-fire striker has sounded warning shots ahead of tomorrow’s encounter.
The 29-year-old has made a sensational claim that he would give up all of his club honours if that is what it takes to win the AFCON tournament.
Speaking in a new advert for New Balance, Mane, who has won the UEFA Champions League, Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup, claimed he would trade them all for the continental title.
“When I was a kid they called me Ballonbuwa (ball wizard), but I was always more of Gaynde (lion): ruthless, explosive, a hunter.
“I have been hunting my whole career, but no matter what I have caught, I am still hungry.
“My people have waited a long time. I would trade it all to win this one.
“This is my time.
“The lion roars,” thundered Mane.
This should be a reminder of what Zimbabwe will be up against when the game kicks off tomorrow.
Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli), Idrissa Gana Gueye (Paris Saint-Germain) and Keita Balde (Cagliari) are all part of a very strong Senegal team that plans to go all the way and win a maiden AFCON Cup.
But, that does not scare the Zimbabwe Warriors at all.
Buoyed by a US$1 million cash injection from Government, Norman Mapeza’s troops are in high spirits and ready to pull off a Houdini act.
“The boys are psyched up for this game,” Mapeza told The Sunday Mail Sport yesterday.
“The players are pushing and it’s something that I am glad of. Morale is also high and the boys are highly motivated to perform,” said Mapeza, who was the Warriors captain when Zimbabwe beat Senegal 2-1 in an AFCON qualifier in 1999.
The absence of Aston Villa midfielder Marvelous Nakamba and Marshall Munetsi (Stade Reims) through injury and Tendai Darikwa due to personal reasons has left Zimbabwe thin on both experience and quality.
In-form AFC Bournemouth wing-back Jordan Zemura is also out of tomorrow’s match after arriving late in Cameroon.
The 22-year-old was set have a PCR test late yesterday.
“Jordan (Zemura) will have his PCR test today (yesterday). He will miss the Senegal game,” Warriors manager Wellington Mpandare confirmed.
Fortunately, skipper Knowledge Musona, who is making a third straight appearance at the AFCON finals, is available for selection.
Musona has one goal at AFCON, scored in a 2-4 defeat against Tunisia at the 2017 finals.
The legendary Peter Ndlovu is still the all-time leading scorer for Zimbabwe at the finals with three goals scored in 2004 in Tunisia.
Esrom Nyandoro, Adam Ndlovu, Joel Lupahla (2004), Benjani Mwaruwari (2006), Kuda Mahachi, Nyasha Mushekwi, Knowledge Musona and Tendai Ndoro (2017), and Khama Billiat (2019) are the only other Zimbabweans to score at the AFCON finals.
Highly rated Olympic Lyon striker Tino Kadewere is yet to achieve that feat and will be hoping to use the 33rd edition of the tournament to make a mark.
He has recovered from a groin injury but is likely to start on the bench as Mapeza is likely to opt for Prince Dube.
Mapeza’s trusted hunting dog, Kelvin Madzongwe, will play at the base of the Warriors midfield.
Iceland-based midfielder Kundai Benyu might be thrust in a more attacking role, with Kuda Mahachi and Ishmael Wadi providing width.
Petros Mhari is the preferred first choice and will play behind a back-four that is likely to feature Teenage Hadebe, Gerald Takwara, Takudzwa Chimwemwe and Bruce Kangwa.
Sadly, odds are against Zimbabwe, who have never won an opening fixture at the AFCON finals since 2004 when they fell 1-2 against Egypt.
The Warriors have so far played 12 games at the AFCON finals since making their debut in 2004.
They have two wins, two draws and eight losses.
They have eight points out of a possible 36, translating to a 22,2 percent pass mark
Zimbabwe have conceded 27 times and scored 13 goals in the 12 games they have played.
They are also yet to score against The Lions of Teranga at AFCON.
Zimbabwe and Senegal have met seven times in all competitions since 1980.
The Warriors have two wins against Senegal’s five.
The first competitive meeting between Zimbabwe and Senegal was on August 18, 1985 when a Stanley Ndunduma solitary strike ensured victory for the Warriors in an AFCON qualifier in Harare.
Zimbabwe go into this match on the back of a disastrous record of zero wins in 12 outings, including the 0-0 draw against Sudan in a practice match on January 2.
They have one win in 19 matches.
The last time Zimbabwe tasted victory in all competitions was when they narrowly beat Botswana 1-0 in Francistown in an AFCON qualifier on March 25, 2021.
It’s a sad statistic they will have to carry into tomorrow’s match against Senegal.
After facing The Lions of Teranga, Zimbabwe will then play Malawi on Friday.
This is the first time Zimbabwe and Malawi are meeting at the finals.
The two nations have clashed four times since 2015 and Zimbabwe enjoy a superior head-to-head record with two wins, while the other two contests were deadlocked.
When the two nations met in an AFCON qualifier on June 5, 2016, Zimbabwe thumped Malawi 3-0 at the National Sports Stadium.
Malawi warmed up to the finals with a 2-1 win over Comoros in a friendly match at the Abdallah Al-Faisal Stadium in Saudi Arabia on New Year’s Day. First-half goals by Gabadinho Mhango (Orlando Pirates) and Kuda Muyaba (Polokwane City) ensured victory for The Flames.
Malawi have only two European-based players in their squad – midfielders Charles Petro (Sheriff Tiraspol, Moldova) and Francisco Madinga (FC Dilla Gori, Georgia).
They could turn out to be the weakest team in Group B, which also has Guinea.
And the Warriors are tipped to pick up maximum points against Meke Mwase’s charges. But, Zimbabwe are yet to win any of their two opening matches at the AFCON finals since 2004.
They have been regressing since 2006, picking up a point each at the 2017 and 2019 finals. At the 2019 finals, Zimbabwe scored a single goal.
Warriors’ probable line-up
P. Mhari, T. Chimwemwe, B. Kangwa, T. Hadebe, G. Takwara, K. Madzongwe, K. Benyu, N. Tigere, K. Mahachi, I. Wadi, P. Dube