Senior Sports Editor
AS a blanket of darkness embraced Harare yesterday, sucking life out of the capital’s hustle and bustle, there was a feeling this oasis of tranquility was just the calm, before a vicious storm, hits today.
The Desert Storm, which left the Warriors reeling on the shores of the Meditterenan on Thursday, has shifted direction.
And, it is now expected to hit the capital this afternoon.
In particular, the Belvedere neighbourhood of the capital, and its adjusting wetlands, are likely to feel the full impact of this raging storm, whose eye should pass through this area, from about 3pm.
The fear, of the possible huge damage this could inflict, on the nation’s 2021 AFCON dreams, is understandable.
And, in a country, which has a strong emotional attachment with its Warriors, despite the team’s record of under-achievement — concern has been rising with each passing hour.
Of course, this won’t be Armageddon, even if, at the end of it all, the Warriors —just like they did four days ago — are floored by the sheer power of the Desert Foxes.
They could still rise, from the pounding, to book their date at the Nations Cup finals in Cameroon in two years’ time.
But, our fate will now be out of our hands.
And, with the Algerians qualifying with a victory today, the Desert Foxes will not be under any obligation to field their superstars, like Riyad Mahrez and Sofiane Feghouli, in their remaining two qualifiers.
That would give both Zambia and Botswana, irrespective of who wins today in their Gaborone showdown, good chances of beating the under-strength Algerians and boosting their chances of making it to Cameroon.
Algeria coach, Djamel Belmadi, said even if they qualify today, his men are on a mission to try and break Egypt’s 24-match unbeaten record in African football.
“Our players are keen on breaking the record for the team with the longest unbeaten run in African matches, currently held by the Egyptians,’’ he said.
“Small things like this hold a lot of meaning, even if it’s not our biggest ambition. For me, reaching the 2022 World Cup finals is my main goal.’’
Maybe, for us, that’s a rainbow of light, in the gloom of the gathering dark storm clouds.
But, why should we go back to those old days, when we became specialists of using calculators, as we nervously waited for results from other teams, to do us a favour, and help us go to the AFCON finals?
After all, those were Nations Cup finals which only featured 16 teams and, now, with a wide field of 24 teams, more than half the membership of CAF, why should we be waiting for a helping hand to get there?
If we really believe we have come of age, a nation that now sees failure to make the group stages of the Nations Cup finals as a doomed mission, we shouldn’t be worrying about qualifying.
So, in short, we just have to find a positive result against these Algerians today.
This is our home and, for 16 years, the Warriors have defended their fortress with both honour and honesty — a scare here, a slip there but never a loss in their home AFCON qualifying matches.
Not since Jay Jay Okocha inspired the Super Eagles of Nigeria to a 3-0 win in 2004, and briefly pushed Charles Mabika from the national television screens, have the Warriors lost a home Nations Cup qualifier.
Some of the battles have been scary stuff, like that pound-for-pound classic showdown against the Eagles of Mali at Rufaro in 2011, only for Knowledge Musona to settle it in a 2-1 win for us, with a last-gasp penalty he had to take twice.
Cue in coach Norman Mapeza, his Zimbabwe flag in hand, taking a triumphant lap of honour, around the packed stadium, after the match, as the nation basked in the warmth of victory.
The deafening sounds from inside Rufaro, enough to subdue what comes from four Rolls Royce engines of a jumbo Boeing 747 at full throttle just before take-off, a beautiful, and chaotic, choir of both joy and relief.
Adrenaline rushing, fists pumping, national pride exploding, tears flowing —those were the days of our lives, a reminder of the importance of these Warriors, in shaping the mood of our country.
Jordan Zemura was still just four years old, just TWO months short of his fifth birthday, when the Warriors last lost at home in an AFCON qualifier.
Now, just TWO days after his 21st birthday, he is set to make his home debut for his fatherland inside the stadium that represents the Mecca of our football.
Along the way, since that humbling defeat at the hands of the Super Eagles, we lost Edzai Kasinauyo, one of those who battled those Nigerians, in a losing cause, in that horror show.
The others still live to this day, including Tapuwa Kapini, who has been very critical of the way players are being drafted into the Warriors.
Our goalkeeping department has been a mess since the ZIFA authorities, without making it public, ordered that George Chigova and Edmore Sibanda be retired, prematurely, from national duty.
The duo became the fall guys for the mutiny which hit the Warriors camp, during the AFCON finals in Egypt last year.
And, ZiKeeper will probably go into the Guinness Book of Records as the only ‘keeper, whose enforced retirement came after a man-of-the-match performance, against the record African champions.
It’s a reflection of the chaos in that department that, in desperation this weekend, an SOS was sent to Petros Mhari of FC Platinum to come into the Warriors.
There are trust issues, between the fans and Elvis Chipezeze, and his catalogue of blunders, when it matters most, have become a fatal weakness for this team.
After three matches, during the last AFCON qualifiers, we had seven points, two years earlier, in the 2017 Nations Cup qualifiers, we had five points.
So, in terms of value, we have lost a touch of the progress we were seeing back then.
This means the Warriors simply have to react today and there is no better way to do that than beating the African champions.
We have no choice, we simply have to weather this storm and we can’t say it’s not possible.
Especially after little Sierra Leone came from 0-4 to force a 4-4 draw against the Super Eagles.
And, just a few days after Argentina found a way to beat the mighty All Blacks, for the first time in 34 matches, in rugby union.
“We are Warriors, why should we be scared of anything?’’ said coach Zdravko Logarusic.
Not even a Desert Storm?
That’s the kind of bravado we want to hear in such trying times.