The Zebras made another inaudible departure for an international assignment as they flew out to Harare on Wednesday to launch another attempt to what is proving an elusive second Africa Cup of Nations finals appearance. The forgotten, and fading brand urgently needs a defibrillator, argues Staff Writer, MQONDISI DUBE
In the winter of 2010, the Zebras quietly slipped out, destined for far flung Tunisia, for a mammoth task against the North Africans.
Amid the nation’s disinterest, Stanley Tshosane’s charges produced a stunner to shock the hosts 1-0 victory and returned home heroes, after departing as no-hopers.
That victory set the tone for the remainder of the qualifiers as the Zebras made a firm gallop to their first ever Africa Cup of Nations finals. The achievement dragged along a reluctant nation and the Zebras following burgeoned at the time.
It was a build on from the Jelusic Veselin days, where supporting the team had become infectious. Everyone wanted a piece of the team and recording artists weighed in, as the blue, black and white nation congregated under the rare sunshine after years of despair.
Following Veselin’s departure, there was a brief lull, until Tshosane applied the kiss of life, amid a sea of doubters.
The road to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, sparked new levels of excitement, and the team responded with, not necessarily sparkling, but gritty, match winning performances.
Supporters clubs, which had slid into oblivion after the Veselin area, started to sprout like mushrooms.
There was a brief revival of interest in the team when Peter Butler’s side beat Mali and Burkina Faso back-to-back in 2015.
This was a period when the largest crowd for any local soccer match, 26,262, was recorded, and there was a spike in interest. But it has largely been flat ever since, with sporadic lone cheers here and there.
However, this has been insufficient, to spur countrywide interest and re-install the Zebras brand back to its former glory.
Tonight, the Zebras enter a difficult territory in Harare, against a backdrop of a plethora of issues that have hit their camp recently.
Coach, Adel Amrouche has reportedly voiced his frustrations, some players were caught drinking alcohol in camp, while some clubs did not release players for the Egypt trip.
Judging by reports, there is discord at Lekidi Centre. But this is not the ideal situation, ahead of the opening encounter of the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers, which is expected to shape the 2021 campaign.
Zimbabwe has a squad oozing with class in every department, just like Tunisia did more than a decade ago. The Zebras were the overwhelming underdogs, when they touched down in Tunis as they are in Harare.
Now, Amrouche carries the bulk of the burden, to provide the Midas Touch, and turn around an underwhelming situation and kick-start a thriving campaign.
But that will not be easy against a Warriors side driven by the silky talents of Aston Villa midfielder, Marvellous Nakamba, and the darting runs of Kaizer Chiefs forward, Khama Billiat.
The Zebras are in desperate need of a player who will grab the game by the scruff of the neck in Harare, and prove that the never-say-die attitude did not disappear with the departure of the likes of Veselin, Tshosane or Butler.
Mogakolodi ‘Tsotso’ Ngele should be the player tailor-made for the big occasions, but unfortunately this has come in dribs and drabs.
Orlando Pirates fans know how deadly Ngele’s left foot can be, and at national level, he bamboozled Eritrea in 2015, and was the best player by miles against Mali in the final match of the 2012 AFCON finals in Equatorial Guinea.
But Ngele has not been at his level best, with injuries derailing his progress.
Then there is the diminutive Mothusi Cooper, who was included in the squad at the last minute after his suspension for indiscipline was lifted.
Cooper is a fan favourite and his crisp one touch football has endeared him to Amrouche, who confesses his love for the former Extension Gunners darling.
The squad has battled-hardened players, who will try and neutralise the Warriors threat. Kabelo Seakanyeng and Mpho Kgaswane’s experience in Europe should be the catalyst that the team needs to stand toe-to-toe with their vastly experienced opponents.
The Zebras’ group contains three southern African countries, which sets the stage for numerous regional derbies against neighbours, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The fourth country in the group, defending champions, Algeria, are the favourites to grab the top spot, leaving the three southern African neighbours to battle for the remaining qualifying berth, although shocks cannot be ruled out.