Zimbabwe's unlikely footballing heroes

Posted by Firdose Moonda

Despite failing in the 2014 World Cup qualification, Zimbabwe are finding redemption in the CHAN.GettyImagesDespite failing in the 2014 World Cup qualification, Zimbabwe are finding redemption in the CHAN.

Zimbabwe are two matches away from recording the biggest achievement on the international stage: winning a continental cup. Ian Gorowa's Warriors have already made history by qualifying for the African Nations Championship (CHAN) semi-finals. They turned a lacklustre start, which included goalless draws against Morocco and Uganda, into a sparkling run to the final four and in the process, entering territory they have not been in before.

Along the way, they were the only side whose defense was not breached throughout the group stages. The wall was only punctured in the quarterfinal, by Mali, but Zimbabwe won anyway. With Libya and (should they win) one of Ghana or Nigeria to come, Zimbabwe are eyeing a major coup, one that will show enormous progress from the match-fixing scandal that rocked the country's football in 2012.

With almost 100 players' careers cut short, Zimbabwean football was plunged into crisis when it was revealed they had been involved in underhanded operations. Their system was overhauled and, like anything new, was thought to need much time to recover. But in little more than 12 months, Zimbabwe in the words of the country's Herald newspaper "helped to mend the shattered fabric of a national game."

Their performance has been a testament to the resilience that is so often associated with Zimbabwe -- this is the country that survived hyper-inflation, after all, and continues to function despite its political problems -- while also showing their strength against Burkina Faso. They defended as well as they had all tournament, enjoyed most of the possession and showed attacking intent.

After two games in which Zimbabwe could not find the back of the net, performances that had local media crying out for strikers, they showed aggression from the get-go against the Stallions. Zimbabwe had a change in the opening few minutes with a free kick from the edge of the box that forces Mohamed Kabore into a save. They held Burkina Faso at bay as the first half drew to a close and scored early into the second. Zimbabwe could have doubled and even trebled their lead with chances rolling in but in the end managed only one goal, which proved enough for a 1-0 win.

Their efforts were increased in the quarterfinal. Simba Sithole scored the opener in the 11th minute and Zimbabwe could have had a second by the 25th. They eventually did did double their advantage thanks to a goal from Kudakwashe Mahachi, who made it past four Malian defenders to score. Zimbabwe's defence went a minute short of six hours without conceding before they gave way as the match drew to a close with the Warriors deserving 2-1 winners.

Despite the late goal, Zimbabwe's backline has been the talk of the tournament. Patson Jaure and Eric Chipeta form the centre while Milton Ncube and Hardlife Zvirekwi are on the wings. But it has also been the work of midfielders Danny Phiri and Peter Moyo that has been noticed.

Gorowa has hailed the defence as being "our biggest strength" -- and he will need it against an enthusiastic Libya. The North Africans ensured they qualified for the knockouts after they came from two goals down to beat Congo and then won a penalty shootout against Gabon.

All that said, Zimbabwe are certain to feel like the home team as they enter the business end of the competition. There are almost a million of their countrymen living in South Africa and they have made their presence felt at the Warriors matches so far.

Perhaps more importantly, the better Zimbabwe performs, the higher their players' chances of calling South Africa's Premier Soccer League home. Gorowa has told his players that this competition could "open a door" to foreign leagues but he hopes they will understand the "bigger picture" as well.

That's not to say the two are mutually exclusive. "A transfer or something for their own benefit will come it the team does well," Gorowa said. And if the team triumphs, the intangible gains will be greater than Zimbabwe can imagine. They would be unlikely victors and unlikely heroes.

Usually, those are the best kind.

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