The chronicle of Zimbabwe’s failed World Cup qualifying campaign

There are 44 days to go before the 2022 FIFA World Cup kicks off in Qatar.

Football stars will descend on the Arab country for the global showpiece —the first to be held in the winter months, due to the soaring temperatures in Qatar.

Zimbabwe will not be one of the five African countries at the global extravaganza, as has been the case since the southern African country attained independence from British encroachment in April 1980.

When the draw for the qualifiers was conducted, the general consensus among football fans was that for the first time in a long time, the Warriors had a chance to book a place at the World Cup finals, considering the group they were placed in.

The draw was held in January 2020, a few days after Zdravko Logarusic was appointed Warriors coach.

Zimbabwe were drawn in Group G  together with Ghana, South Africa and Ethiopia.

Ghana were on a transition, having parted ways with Kwesi Appiah and replaced him with former captain Charles ‘CK’ Akonnor. 

South Africa were also recovering from the humiliation of failing to qualify for the 2021 Afcon finals in Cameroon.

Perhaps the only person who believed Ghana were the favourites, is Logarusic.

“I could not talk as a supporter, I must talk as a coach, Ghana has many quality players who play much bigger games than against South Africa, and the rest, so in the group Ghana is absolutely the favorite,” the outspoken coach said days after his appointment, drawing ire from Warriors fans.

Zimbabwe’s first group game was a Limpopo derby against Bafana Bafana at the National Sports Stadium, on September 3 2021.

Buoyed by the availability of the France-based duo of midfield enforcer Marshall Munetsi and striker Tino Kadewere after England-based stars failed to make the trip due to Covid-19 restrictions, Warriors fans fancied the team’s chances.

That game was Hugo Broos’ first game since replacing Molefi Ntseki in the Bafana dugout and the Belgian tactician had embarked on a new youngsters project.

But the Warriors produced an insipid show and did not even register a shot on target in a disappointing 0-0 stalemate with Bafana.

Warriors entering the field for the warm before the Bafana clash on September 3.

Logarusic blamed match fitness for the lifeless display.

“We had problems with match fitness, only four of our players, have been playing regular football, that is, Bhasera, Khama, Marshall (Munetsi) and Musona,” he said.

“But, the rest of our players haven’t been in action, so it means we have problems with match fitness. Each of them was trying their best but we didn’t have the individual brilliance, which can decide a game and, also, a bit of match fitness,” added the former Sudan coach.

A dejected Knowledge Musona at the post-match press conference after the goalless draw with South Africa.
Ronwen Williams was in goal for South Africa and also captained his country.

Up next for the Warriors was a date with the Walias of Ethiopia in Bahir Dah four days later.

Logarusic’s men failed to tick and did not create any meaningful goalscoring opportunities.

Captain Knowledge Musona’s speculative shot from 25 yards on the hour mark, was the only shot on target registered by Zimbabwe the whole afternoon.

With the contest headed for a share of the spoils, Alec Mudimu was adjudged to have handled in the box and the referee pointed to the spot.

Despite protests from the Zimbabwe players, the penalty was eventually taken in the second minute of additional rime and Aschalew Seyoum sent Talbert Shumba the wrong way to score the winner.

The result irked the Zimbabwean head of delegation and ZIFA baord member Sugar Chagonda, who immediately wrote to association’s then president Felton Kamambo, recomending the dismisal of Logarusic, whose blood fans were baying for back home.

The Kamambo-led adminstration finally bowed down to pressure from football stakeholders and the Croat was shown the exit door on September 12.

Logarusic left Zimbabwe anchoring Group G with just a point from two matches but mathematically, the Warriors still had a chance.

Crowd favourite and former Warriors captain Norman Mapeza was confirmed as the interim coach three days later and tasked with overseeing the World Cup qualifying campaign.

Mapeza was told to select his backroom staff and opted for the veteran duo of Tawurayi Mangwiro and Mandla ‘Lulu’ Mpofu as his assistants while Energy Murambadoro was named goalkeepers coach.

Mapeza’s first assignment was the double header against Ghana, with the Warriors travelling to Cape Coast for a date with the Black Stars, who were now under the guidance of Serbian mentor Miovan Ralevac, on October 9.

The availability of the England-based trio of midfielder Marvelous Nakamba, right back Tendayi Darikwa and utility player Jordan Zemura, boosted the Warriors’ chances of pulling off what would be an upset in Cape Coast.

Surprisingly,  Mapeza put Teenage Hadebe on the bench for that game, when most people thought the gangly central defender would marshall the Warriors backline.

Instead, Mapeza opted of a makeshift central defence partnership of Munetsi and Onismor Bhasera, with Darikwa and Bruce Kangwa at right and left back respectively.

Five minutes into the contest, the Black Stars drew first blood when Mohammed  Kudus’ weak shot somehow went past Washington Arubi, in goal for the Warriors and trickled into the back of the next.

That goal separated the two sides at the half time interval in a first half in which the Warriors did not impose themselves.

Mapeza’s half time team talk must have been decisive as the Warriors started well in the second half and deserved restored parity four minutes after the restart.

Alexander Djiku brought down Knox Mutizwa in the box and the referee quickly pointed to the spot.

Musona stepped up and sent Joseph Wollacott the wrong way, to level matters for Zimbabwe.

Mapeza’s charges were unlucky not to take the lead in the 58th minute when Zemura’ cracking effort with his weaker right foot came off the post with Wollacott beaten.

Six minutes later, Ghana restored their lead when a lapse in concentration by Darikwa allowed Thomas Partey to have the ball in the Zimbabwe box and the Arsenal star’s low shot beat Arubi.

Ghana skipper Andre Ayew put the final nail on the Zimbabwean coffin three minutes before full time when he headed home a teasing Baba Rahman cross to make it 3-1.

After the game, Mapeza admitted the World Cup dream was over.

“Sometimes you need to be realistic in life, the chances are now very slim. We are however not losing hope and will continue working hard. We are also using the remaining matches to prepare for the Africa Cup of Nations finals in Cameroon in January,” he said.

The reverse fixture was set for the National Sports Stadium three days later and the build up to it was dominated by news of Ghana arriving in Harare before the Warriors.

The Black Stars used a chartered flight and arrived at the Robert Gabriel Mugabe Airport on Sunday evening.

On the other hand, the Warriors, who had to connect via Ethiopia then Johannesburg, South Africa, arrived on Monday at 12pm, with the clash scheduled to kick off at 3pm the next day.

Munetsi, who had limped off in the defeat to Cape Coast, did not recover on time.

Shumba was preferred in goal, while Rahman Kutsanzira, replaced Darikwa at right back.

Khama Billiat, who was serving a suspension in the reverse fixture, started in attack, together with Musona and Terrence Dzvukamanja.

Ghana took the lead on the half hour mark, when Shumba made a mess of Partey’s free kick from 25 yards.

The imposing shot-stopper covered his face in shame after seeing the ball goal through his hands into the back of the net.

That first half strike was all the Black Stars needed to collect maximum points and ascend to the summit of Group G.

Despite the defeat, Mapeza said he had seen some ‘positives’ from how his charges fared.

Another the Ghana setback, a Limpopo derby between the Warriors and South Africa was on the cards at the FNB Stadium on November 11, with Zimbabwe looking to end the campaign on a high while Bafana Bafana needed a win in their Group G two-horse race with Ghana.

The pre-match talk was dominated by the inclusion of Dynamos winger Bill Antonio, who was still a student at Prince Edward, in the Warriors squad.

The Dzivareskwa-raised winger came on for stand-in skipper Khama Billiat in the second half as Teboho Mokoena’s bullet header sealed a crucial 1-0 win for South Africa.

Three days later, Zimbabwe hosted Ethiopia at the National Sports Stadium in the last game of the campaign.

The idea was probably to end it on a high while preparing for the Afcon finals in Cameroon, which were less than 2 months away.

Dynamos’ Tymon Mvula made his national team debut while Billiat captained the team, with Scotland-based David Moyo leading the search for goals.

Kuda Mahahi thrust the hosts ahead in the 39th minute  with an audacious lob.

When it appeared the Warriors were set for their first victory of the campaign, Ethiopia levelled matters through Abubeker Nassir.

An exquisite through ball found him face to face with Mvula and he dribbled past the goalkeeper and fired home the equaliser.

Six games played, two goals scored, four defeats and two draws —the summary of Zimbabwe’s World Cup qualifying campaign.

As the nafion was still reflecting on the failed road to Qatar, Billiat announced his retirement from international football 24 hours later.

The nimble-footed winger did not give solid reasons for his decision and two days after the announcement, the country’s sports regulatory body, the Sports and Recreation Commission (SRC), suspended the Kamambo-led ZIFA board for several violations, chief among them failure to account for public funds.

That decision led to the suspension of Zimbabwe by world football governing body FIFA for ‘third party interference’, leading to the current isolation Zimbabwean football finds itself in.

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