In the sweltering heat of the Cairo International Stadium at the 2019 Total African Cup of Nations (AFCON) opener, Zimbabwe are pinging long balls from Edmore Sibanda to Nyasha Mushekwi in the hopes of breaching a rather tall Egyptian defence.
Mushekwi, known for his hold-up play and competitive tussles with defenders, struggles to cushion the ball down to Khama Billiat or Knowledge Musona, who are quite far from the action anyway, relying on Mushekwi’s telepathic powers or a gust of wind to somehow bring the ball to their feet.
The final result would be 1-0 in favour of Egypt, and whilst the hosts took three points with them into the next game, knowing that they could have played better, Zimbabweans on Twitter – or, “Twimbos” – are celebrating the fact that Mohamed Salah was trapped in Divine Lunga’s pocket for 90 minutes. Congratulations were in order for Sunday Chidzambwa for such an achievement.
The Warriors – as they are popularly known – would go on to secure one point from their other two group matches, losing 4-0 to the Democratic Republic of Congo in the final one, a team that they had secured four points from in two qualifying matches leading up to the tournament. An interesting use of a one-man remix of the offside trap by defender, Lawrence Mhlanga, made the defeat all the more deflating, if not comical.
If only Arsenal’s Reiss Nelson – who has never played for Zimbabwe at any level – could have been convinced by the Zimbabwe Football Association (ZIFA) to play for the team; maybe he held the key to their hopes in the tournament.
In another part of the world, The Zimbabwe Cricket Team, also known as the Chevrons, have embarked on a “European Tour” to The Netherlands and Ireland, two teams who have become Zimbabwe’s rivals in recent times. After the disappointment of not qualifying for The World Cup in England, this is where the Chevrons are perched, quietly mulling over what could have been and finding it difficult to cope with the exploits of Roelof van der Merwe, Fred Klaassen, Gary Wilson and George Dockrell.
For many Zimbabweans, watching their football and cricket teams has become a constant reminder of where the country is as a whole. If you ever wanted to know what was happening in Zimbabwe without actually following it on the news, or reading about the country in the popular newspapers that are always at each other’s throats, then set your sights on these two sporting sides and the reactions they receive on popular social media sites such as Twitter and Instagram, and all shall be revealed.
If there isn’t a story floating around about unfulfilled promises with regards to appearance fees, then there’s something being said about the poor preparation before tour matches or the suffocation of rising talent because of over-reliance on players that don’t have much to offer anymore.
The current state of football and cricket in Zimbabwe has suffered a painful demise, resulting from years of misplaced priorities, short-sighted leadership and an environment reeling from the stench of greed, corruption and mediocrity. As we speak, both the Zimbabwe Cricket Board and ZIFA are being taken to task by the Sports and Recreation Commission for fraudulent dealings and disappointing administrative efforts.
Football and cricket are the pillars that Zimbabwe pins its hopes on, from key corporate stakeholders to the Ministry of Sport and Recreation, right down to the high school pupils taking up the sports in their afternoons after a hard day’s work in the classroom.
Yet, for many of them, the current regimes don’t provide much encouragement for further development. Whereas developed countries are pumping millions into their football and cricket programmes and nurturing the next generation, Zimbabwe has failed to take advantage of the potential that these two sports provide. In a country that has limited itself of opportunities, these sports could have helped to find a way forward.
There was a time when a trip to The National Sports Stadium, the home of football for The Warriors, was an intimidating one. Greeted by 60 000 hostile Zimbabwean supporters, travelling teams knew that they were in for a fight. Moses Chunga and Peter Ndlovu could attest to this.
The same could be said of touring parties that played at Harare Sports Club, and although the venue was much smaller than the National Sports Stadium, the atmosphere was raucous and filled with expectation when the likes of Andy Flower and Heath Streak were in action.
You only have to look at the likes of Bangladesh and Afghanistan to see how far Zimbabwe Cricket has fallen. Competing at The World Cup used to be a pipe dream such nations, who had drawn encouragement from Zimbabwe’s heroics at the 1999 edition in England – a run to the Super Six stage, and missing out on a semi-final with Pakistan by a difference of 0.27 in net run rate, could not be understated, yet many may have expected it given the quality in the squad at the time. What a platform to catapult from.
Nowadays, Zimbabwe’s two main sporting disciplines can’t be put in the same sentence as those that the country used to mock. Just across the pond, South Africans were in delirium over Bafana Bafana’s performance against Egypt at AFCON where target-man, Lebo Mothiba – much in the same way as Mushekwi – struggled to impose himself on the Egyptian defence. The only difference, however, was that he had proactive players in Thembinkosi Lorch and Percy Tau who helped in a fluid front three that ran the hosts ragged.
This all came from good preparation and planning from Stuart Baxter and his coaching staff, which couldn’t be said of Chidzambwa and his men who failed to see what seemed to be glaringly obvious from the get-go.
And as the country continues to lick its wounds and find its feet, there is no comfort in being associated with football and cricket in the country. At least the women’s netball team are putting up a fight in the World Cup being played in Liverpool. Without them, there would be nothing else to be proud of.