Senior Sports Editor
ZIMBABWE’S Warriors gave the country something to cheer its spirits last night after they completed their mission, to qualify for the 2021 AFCON finals, with a game to spare.
After having taken care of their business, with a 1-0 win over Botswana in Francistown earlier, which eliminated their hosts from the race, the Warriors then watched from their hotel rooms, as they earned a ticket to Cameroon.
This followed some dramatic events in the other group match.
The result in Botswana meant Zambia, who were playing later in the night, had to find a way to become the first team, in more than 20 matches, to beat Algeria.
Such a result would have helped Chipolopolo to force a final-day shootout, against the Warriors on Monday in Harare, for a ticket to the AFCON finals.
However, despite a spirited performance, the Zambians could only draw 3-3 with the African champions, with Patson Daka giving as much as he could for his country by converting two penalties.
In a heart-stopping final few minutes of the game, Daka thought he had won the game, for his team, but his cool effort was ruled out for offside.
Replays showed he had started his run, just a bit earlier, than the Algerian defence.
Then, an Algerian defender, somehow, pushed his clearance onto his upright post, in the madness of that finale, before the Desert Foxes held out for a draw, which ended Zambian hopes.
It meant the Warriors, who have eight points, cannot be caught by either Zambia, who have four, or Botswana, who also have four, even if they lose their final match, against Chipolopolo, on Monday.
Had the Zambians won, it would have set the stage for a replay of what happened, during the ‘94 Nations Cup qualifiers, when they came to the National Sports Stadium, and forced the result they wanted, to qualify for the finals in Tunisia.
Kalusha Bwalya headed home a late equaliser, on that afternoon, to lead his side, still mourning the loss of their teammates in a plane crash, off the coast of Gabon, the draw they required.
It’s a result that shattered the Dream Team hopes, in the final game of the qualifiers, and whose pain is still being felt today.
This time, though, the Zimbabweans would now have required just to avoid defeat, in the final qualifier in Harare on Monday, had the Zambians forced a victory, against the Africans champions, last night.
However, that was not to be, with the Desert Foxes, who were without a number of their regular players, after having qualified in the last round of qualifiers in November, ensuring they kept their impressive lengthy unbeaten run intact.
Islam Slimani, the gangly forward who once starred for English Premiership side, Leicester City, appeared a man on a mission, to ensure his teammate at French Ligue 1 side, Tino Kadewere, would also be at the AFCON finals next year.
While Sliminai was able to fly to Southern Africa, to play for his Desert Foxes, Kadewere was forced to remain in France, because of Covid-19 restrictions.
By the time officials here started to scramble, to try and ensure they would get a private plane, to get Kadewere, and another France-based midfielder, Marshall Munetsi, home for the final two Nations Cup qualifiers, as demanded by French authorities, time was no longer on their side.
Slimani scored twice for Algeria last night, including putting them into the lead, after the Zambians had fought back from 0-2 down, to tie the game 2-2, just after the break.
But, no one will ever claim the Warriors were given a helping hand, to ensure they reach their third straight Nations Cup finals, for the first time in their history, because the truth is they deserved their ticket to Cameroon.
Neither Zambia, nor Botswana, can complain because both sides were beaten by the Warriors, in their backyards.
Chipolopolo fell to a 1-2 defeat in Lusaka, in what proved to be the final game for coach Joey Antipas, which opened the gates for the arrival of Zdravko Logarusic.
Last night, the Croat also guided his Warriors to victory over the Zebras, on their turf in Francistown.
And, having picked seven out of a possible nine points, from their regional rivals, the Warriors are worth their ticket to Cameroon.