The Sunday Mail
Robson Sharuko in CAIRO, Egypt
AFTER the turmoil that rocked their camp on the eve of the 2019 AFCON finals, the Zimbabwe Warriors displayed their other side, the beautiful one, using the grand stage of the 2019 AFCON opening game to charm the world with a show pregnant with both spirit and bravery on Friday night.
Thrust into the global limelight, for the first time in a generation, after being handed the opportunity to play in the opener of the biggest Nations Cup finals in history, a 24-team football jamboree, the Warriors had grabbed headlines, for all the wrong reasons, on the eve of the match after a standoff with ZIFA over payments that had not yet reflected in their bank accounts.
A final training session, ahead of their showdown against the Pharaohs, was cancelled amid the lockdown that saw the players and ZIFA officials engage in marathon meetings, at one stage throwing the first match into doubt, before the Government’s intervention broke the ugly impasse.
There were fears the Warriors would be ill-equipped to deal with the cauldron of an Egyptian fortress packed with 80 000 passionate home fans, the threat of Mohamed Salah and the combined quality of a Pharaohs team whose first XI had three players from the English Premiership and the electric Trezeguet from the Turkish top-flight.
The passion generated by the return of the Pharaohs to their spiritual home at the Cairo International Stadium, after years of being forced to play in the wilderness of Alexandria because of political considerations here, was expected to overwhelm a Warriors team short on collective top quality but long on spirit.
Analysts believed this was always going to be a mountain to climb for these Warriors, not because the Pharaohs rarely lose at home, but because there were fears the deflection of focus, caused by the challenges that rocked their camp on the eve of the match, virtually made it impossible for them to pinch something from the opening match.
But after a colourful opening ceremony that was a credit to the genius of the organisational capabilities of the Egyptians, the focus turned on the Warriors and how they would fare against Salah and his teammates, backed by a vociferous crowd that made the visitors feel very much like they were in hostile and alien territory.
Predictably, there were nerves among the Warriors in the opening phase of the game. Their usually reliable defensive shield showed pockets of weaknesses, fault lines that kept being exposed by the Pharaohs who made a flying start to the game, only to run into the wall imposed by inspired goalkeeper Edmore Sibanda.
But once they weathered the early storm, the Warriors began to show why many of their fans believe they have progressed into a fine outfit in the past four years.
Most of the players were disappointed to lose to the hosts by a single goal which came from a mistake.
“We are a little bit disappointed by the result, if you play well and the result doesn’t come out, that’s disappointing because we always play to try and win every game, no matter the opposition we face,’’ said outstanding midfielder Marvelous Nakamba.
“We just need to believe in ourselves in the next game. We can give something for the people in Zimbabwe. We thank them for the support and we promise them that we will do everything possible to try and do well in our next game.
“I still think we have room to prove, we are professionals and we can get better and better. We have been in this position before and as professionals, we have to tell each other the truth so that we try and improve for the next game.
“We must now focus on Uganda and prepare ourselves mentally and physically for the game.’’
The Warriors were clearly the better team in the second half and they pushed the Pharaohs onto the ropes for long periods during that segment. They could have fished a point at least, from their industry had they believed, found the killer final punch and refreshed their team early when the hosts appeared to have been abandoned by their fans.
But, now and again, the Warriors were found wanting when it came to the business of getting the end product of their adventure.
Big striker Nyasha Mushekwi was isolated from the rest, skipper Knowledge Musona was not at his usual best and the absence of a playmaker to feast on the Egyptian weaknesses again reared its ugly head.
And, once again, they didn’t create clear-cut opportunities.
But anyone who tells you this was a lifeless show by these Warriors is a shameless merchant who specialises in spreading lies, is consumed by hate, is a disciple of negativity and has probably been living in Mars for the last couple of years and cannot possibly make a difference between the good and the bad.
Devine Lunga, asked by his mother on the morning of the match to shine for his country, was outstanding on the left side of the defence, overshadowing Salah once he realised that for all the magic of this Egyptian superstar, he remained human. He delivered one of the finest defensive performances by a Warrior on foreign soil.
Big goalkeeper Sibanda, thrown into the fray in the absence of suspended number one George Chigova, was awesome, a pillar of strength and a towering influence in the game.
Midfielder Nakamba showed why there is such a mad rush for his signature by a growing number of English Premiership sides. He displayed a beautiful and assured show.
Marshal Munetsi rose from a nervy first half to impose himself.
Khama Billiat was the Warriors’ biggest threat upfront but lacked the support needed to make a difference and, even though he wasn’t 100 percent fit, he showed why he strikes so much fear into the opposition.
Whether the Warriors can sustain the level they showed in the second half remains to be seen. A number of injuries will have to be dealt with in the coming days and, hopefully, the frustration of losing a match, where they should, at least, have picked a point, will not spill into the next match.
What is without question, right now, is that for 90 minutes on Friday night, the Warriors found a way to repair some of their pride and profile, which had been battered by the negativity of the ugly pre-match events