The Sunday Mail
TWENTY-FIVE years ago this month, Zimbabwe suffered what has remained the Warriors’ worst ever defeat in an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier since 1990.
An understrength Zimbabwe side succumbed to a 5-0 loss to Zaire (now DR Congo) at the Stade Omnisport in Kinshasa on June 4, 1995, in what has remained the joint worst performance by Zimbabwe in an AFCON qualifier.
The other time Zimbabwe had got a 5-0 hiding in an AFCON qualifier was against Cote d’Ivoire in Abidjan on August 13, 1989.
However, it is the massacre in the then Zaire which proffers a throwback to a time when the Ebola virus, which broke out in the Central African country, caused a massive scare across the continent and cost Zimbabwe a place at the 1996 Nations Cup finals.
Long before coronavirus, which originated in China at the end of 2019 and went on to foil major sporting events including the 2020 Olympics, there was the deadly Ebola virus which also hampered the Warriors’ dreams of making their first ever appearance at the AFCON showpiece.
Missing virtually the entire first team, most of whom pulled out at the 11th hour, citing fears of Ebola, Zimbabwe went to Zaire topping Group One, which also had Cameroon, Lesotho, Malawi and Swaziland.
The Warriors had beaten Lesotho home and away, edged Zaire 2-1 in Harare and hammered Cameroon 4-1 at the National Sports Stadium, prior to the trip to Kinshasa.
This made them huge favourites to complete a rare double over the Congolese.
However, without their regular players, Zimbabwe were simply no match for the hosts, who raced into a 2-0 first-half lead before completing the rout in the second stanza.
Gibson Homela, who was in charge of the Warriors, had assembled a makeshift squad bereft of regulars like Peter Ndlovu, Agent Sawu, Bruce Grobbelaar, Vitalis Takawira, Norman Mapeza, Paul Gundani and Wilfred Mugeyi, who had all pulled out.
Claudius Zviripayi, goalkeeper Ernest Chirambadare, Stewart Murisa and Alois Bunjira also refused to travel to Zaire, where an Ebola outbreak had just hit the provincial town of Kikwit, killing 250 people at a death rate of 81 percent.
That loss saw Zimbabwe relinquish top spot to Zaire in Group One.
By the end of the campaign, the Warriors had slumped into fourth place, with five points and two behind Zaire and Cameroon.
“That scoreline tarnished my image as a coach despite the conditions pertaining to preparations for the game,” Homela told The Sunday Mail Sport.
Homela was forced to call in 15 new players at the last minute, among them Johannes Tshuma, Melusi Nkiwane (Highlanders), Chipo Tsodzo, Matambanashe Sibanda, Lloyd Jowa (Zimbabwe Saints), Pasanduka Pakamisa, Ian Gorowa (Black Rhinos), Masimba Dinyero (Blackpool), Wellington Shangiwa, Cain and Abel Muteji (Chapungu), Kingstone Rinemhota (Lancashire Steel), Joe Mugabe (CAPS United) and Shingirayi Twaliki (Rufaro Rovers).
“It was a very difficult situation. Imagine getting up the following morning, just a day before departure and you discover that half the players have withdrawn from the squad without your knowledge.
“The players decided to abscond despite the assurance that the place where we were scheduled to play was Ebola-free.
“Plan B was to consult ZIFA about a possible postponement. The response was negative because of the short notice.
“The other option left was to abandon the fixture, get fined and be suspended. Plan C was to come up with a squad at short notice.
“The challenge was getting guys that had passports. We managed to get the players, but there was no time to practice together in Zimbabwe,” said Homela, who was assisted by the late Barry Daka on that doomed trip.
Zimbabwe’s 1996 AFCON qualifiers campaign was an ill-fated sojourn, just as much as it produced an important statistic that has remained topical even up to today.
Lesotho, whom Zimbabwe had beaten 5-0 at home and 2-0 away, withdrew from the competition after round six of fixtures, and all their results were annulled.
Takawira also became the first Zimbabwean to score a hat-trick in an AFCON qualifier when he led the rout in the 4-1 demolition of Cameroon.
The former Dynamos star powered Zimbabwe to the famous win against the Indomitable Lions at the National Stadium on January 22, 1995.
But just like Ndlovu and others, “Digital” (Takawira) chose to stay away from the Zaire trip and the result was a disastrous loss for Zimbabwe.
“There was no time to practice systems of play involving formation, patterns and tactical strategies, both offensive and defensive.
“We only did the game plan in Zaire. The result of being disorganised was that embarrassing scoreline, which was justified.
“When we came back, I recommended that the players that disappeared the night before be suspended, but ZIFA decided against that and came up with a lenient penalty.
“They pardoned the players and paid them an equal amount with those that risked their lives for the country,” revealed Homela.
Bunjira, who was still playing for Blackpool at the time, opened up on what transpired prior to the Zaire trip.
“Stewart Murisa and myself arrived for camp at the hotel in Harare. We greeted coach Gibson Homela, who was sitting in the foyer.
“We then proceeded to check in. Coach Homes (Homela) didn’t say anything to us about Ebola although there was news about the outbreak of Ebola in Zaire and its devastating effects. After checking in and on our way to the elevators, we met two senior players who I won’t mention by name.
“They told us no one was staying as everyone was leaving the hotel because we couldn’t go to Zaire.
“They said we should go back home like everyone else because ZIFA is supposed to push for the cancellation of the match.
“We just made a U-turn and walked out of the hotel, avoiding talking to Homes, who saw everything I am sure.
“The next day there was big news that senior national team players had all boycotted camp and there was a call for Premier Soccer League players who were willing to come and go play in Zaire. Players came forward and without training they went to Zaire. Only Rambo (Mercedes Sibanda), from the initial squad, stayed in camp,” recalled Bunjira.
Former Highlanders goalkeeper, Tshuma, who stood in for Grobbelaar, was voted man of the match despite conceding five goals.
Tshuma, who is now a goalkeepers’ coach at Central Region Division One side Trukumb Mine, still remembers the hostile atmosphere they encountered at the Stade Omnisport.
“The atmosphere in Zaire was something else. Their fans were clapping and shouting Ebola, Ebola, Ebola!
“It was a deafening sound. We lost 5-0, but I was the man of the match. The hosts came at us relentlessly, but I made some crucial saves,” said the 58-year-old former Wankie ’keeper.
“It was an honour to serve my country. If you are a soldier and you are called to duty, you have to respond to the order.
“Football always comes first for me even though I am a boilermaker by profession,” Tshuma said.
Nesbert “Yabo” Saruchera, who now coaches newly-promoted Premiership side Cranborne Bullets, travelled to Zaire, but was sidelined by a knee problem.
He watched the match from the stands.
“The stadium was packed and their (Zaire) fans were making a lot of noise,” said Saruchera.
“I knew there was Ebola in Zaire, but as a trained soldier, I told myself that I had to do duty for my country”.
Then as now, the Warriors, who are in a good position for a place at the 2021 Nations Cup, will be hoping that the coronavirus pandemic will not jeopardise their qualification campaign and lead to a nullification of some of the fine results such as their maiden away win over Zambia.
The Warriors were due to face Group leaders Algeria in back-to-back fixtures when global sport was halted due to Covid-19.