By CHARLES MABIKA
THE 2022 World Cup football tournament kicks off on November 20, with the jamboree being hosted by Middle East nation of Qatar this time round.
Every time the world football showpiece comes around, I always cast my mind back and go down memory lane to when our own Zimbabwe “Dream Team” almost made history by becoming the first local side to qualify for the most prestigious football event in 1994 in the United States.
And oh boy, were we close!
In the final qualifying group, which comprised of Zimbabwe, Cameroon and Guinea, it was eventually left to a two-team showdown between the “Warriors” and the “Indomitable Lions” to decide the “last men standing”.
This last group’s clashes followed an earlier and eventful journey of the initial qualifiers that had soaked up all the nation’s emotions.
In that final group’s qualifiers, after sharing victory honours with Guinea (1-0 and 0-3) we shocked the mighty “Indomitable Lions” 1-0 on July 5, 1993, at the National Sports Stadium, with a last-gasp goal, in the 87th minute, from serial scorer Agent “Ajira” Sawu, which secured victory as the only goal of the match.
And inevitably, three months later, in the return leg in Yaounde, it was a blood-and-thunder affair as the hosts swore to turn the tables.
And they did just that but oh, so crookedly assisted by an inept and biased referee named Faye Chan from Gambia, on a sweltering October 10 afternoon.
We had played only 15 minutes at a packed Yaounde National Stadium (now called Olembe Stadium) when a corner-kick flighted by Cameroon was cleanly intercepted and cleared by Warriors’ left-wing back Henry “The Bully” McKop’s thigh in the penalty box and Chan unbelievably pointed to the penalty spot, alleging that McKop had handled the ball!
Even the Cameroonian fans in that stadium were stunned.
Up stepped their star player, Francois Oman-Biyik, to send a low shot to the right of Warriors’ ‘keeper Bruce “Jungleman” Grobbelaar who made a superb block but the ball bounced back to Oman-Biyik who slotted it home for the “Indomitable Lions” opener.
Being one of the few Zimbabweans who had accompanied the brilliant visitors under the mentorship of the late German Reinhard Fabisch, it was so painful to absorb and still find the right words into my commentary box’s microphone for the live radio broadcast back home amidst utter disgust, anger and disbelief at the diabolical decision by the referee.
Fabisch, though also understandably disgusted by Chan’s decision, unfortunately plunged into a moment of madness when he rushed onto the pitch after Oman-Biyik’s goal and dipped into his trouser’s back pocket where he drew out a wad of US dollar notes and threw them at the referee’s feet, in a mocking and livid gesture depicting that the official had been “bought” by the Cameroonians to make sure the Zimbabweans would lose the match.
Chan immediately showed him a red card and ordered him off the pitch and into the stands.
The “Warriors” head coach would, a couple of weeks later, also incur the wrath of FIFA for his unwise action and was banned from the game for the following 12 months.
The “Faye Chan Rocky Horror Picture Show” continued for the rest of the match as he glaringly “assisted” Cameroon to score another one and increase their lead.
However, he was helpless to rule out substitute forward Adam “Adamski” Ndlovu’s well struck shot on the run outside the opposition’s penalty box in the dying minutes to restore some hope for a draw but on the stoke of full-time, Oman-Biyik struck again to make it 3-1 and drive the final nail into Zimbabwe’s coffin.
We were all stunned as it dawned on us that the rosy dream for USA ‘94 had been cruelly shattered.
A miraculous and glittering fairy tale that had started on a hot evening at the National Sports Stadium on October 9, 1992, in the initial Group C encounter when Sawu (who else?) struck the only goal of the match against the “Sparrow Hawks” of Togo had bitterly come to a pulverising and painstaking end.
That first round group of qualifiers, we had been drawn together with favourites Egypt, Angola and Togo.
After four matches, it was an unfancied showdown between us and “The Pharoahs”. And we kept the candle of miracles burning after we edged them 2-1 in the first leg at the giant venue in Harare, with Peter “Nsukuzonke” Ndlovu and, of course, Sawu hitting the back of the net.
A few weeks later, in Cairo, the hosts reversed the tie, winning by an identical scoreline, making them group winners through a superior goal difference after we were both tied on nine points at the end of the group stage matches.
But that Egyptian victory was an incident-filled match where a hostile home crowd threw missiles at the Zimbabwean technical bench and onto the pitch with one such weapon striking the forehead of Fabisch and injuring him.
ZIFA lodged an appeal with FIFA and the latter annuled that match and ordered a replay at a neutral venue in Lyon, France.
And the “Warriors” lived up to the nickname that they were “christened” with by former coach Mick Poole to produce a scintillating and brave performance after the tie ended goalless and Zimbabwe were declared winner with 10 points and the “Pharoahs” bowed out in second place, two points behind.
Then after the sweet 1-0 first leg victory over Cameroon followed the horrendous Gambian referee’s performance in Yaounde which extinguished a football-crazy nation’s bright lights.
Somehow, “poetic justice” was handed out to Cameroon after they were drawn in a tough Group B setting at the finals where they faced eventual World Cup winners Brazil, Sweden (who picked up the bronze medal) and Russia.
With a 42-year-old Roger Milla hoping to repeat the heroics of the previous tournament in italy in their line-up, they finished bottom of their group after a 2-2 draw with Sweden before being thumped by Brazil (3-0) and then slaughtered by Russia (6-1) and boarded an early flight back home.
Now the question that comes back into my mind every four years since that debacle in Cameroon is: How would we have fared at USA ’94? Would we have done better than Milla and his side and sprung one or two surprises to advance farther?
The star of that campaign and “Warriors” legendary forward, “Ajira” admitted that it would have been a very difficult task to advance farther from that seemingly “Group of Death”.
“Oh well… I think it would have been a Gargantuan task to proceed farther but we will never know because anything can happen in a game of football,” he said, with a chuckle.
“But it was gratifying to have one leg in those deep waters and I think it made the nation proud.
I will always treasure those glory days and hope that maybe one day there will be another brave bunch of Warriors who will go one step than us and make history,” said the former deadly marksman.
The “Warriors” squad who took part and performed so well in those USA ’94 qualifiers were Grobbbelaar, Brenna “BaGari” Msiska, Ephraim “Rock of Gibraltar” Chawanda, Mercedes “Rambo” Sibanda, Paul “Steelman” Gundani, Melusi “Gamatox” Nkiwane, Francis “Sandura” Shonhayi, John “JP” Phiri, Norman “Muchina weMajuzi” Mapeza, Benjamin “Makanaky” Nkonjera, William “Golden Fox” Mugeyi, McKop, Willard “Mahwii” Mashinkila-Khumalo, Peter Ndlovu, Adam Ndlovu, Sawu, Madinda “Kathazile” Ndlovu, Max “Scara” Lunga, Vitalis “Digital” Takawira and assistant coach Sunday “Mhofu” Chidzambwa.
It still hurts guys but thank you so much for being at that steering wheel of that deafening power boat’s engine that straddled the waters of inspiration, ambition, brilliance, gusto and a fairy tale won derland for as long as it did.
Charles mabika is a veteran Zimbabwean sports journalist and broadcasting icon.