If soccer is a religion then in Zimbabwe speaking ill of the Dream Team, the early 90s national soccer team, is the closest one can get to uttering blasphemy.
In a country where traditional belief still holds as much sway as Christian faith, perhaps prayer should follow the appeasement of ancestors before one can question the legacy of that magical group of players whose spell on a soccer crazed nation still endures after two decades.
Last year however, after the first successful Afcon qualification in over a decade, murmurs of comparison with the current side emerged.
As this year’s African showpiece drew nearer, the murmurs became a chorus as some mustered the bravery to wonder out loud whether Kalisto Pasuwa’s new litter of Warriors could maul fearsome opponents in the African jungle just like their predecessors in green and gold had done all those years ago.
However, before that choir had even broke into full song, 180 gruelling minutes against technically superior opponents shattered all arguments or comparisons.
Forgotten were the heady moments during qualifying: the four-nil trouncing of Swaziland, that 3-0 molestation of Malawi that gave the impression that, at last, a corner had been turned.
Such undoubted brilliance was forgotten as once again some went back to their favourite pastime: yearning for a side whose ghost successive national teams have failed to exorcise.
Overnight, Khama Billiat’s zigzagging runs, which have taunted and haunted defenders from the Cape to Cairo, could no longer be compared to Peter Ndlovu’s mesmerising stepovers. How dare anyone compares Hardlife Zvirekwi, the fullback who infamously booted hot tropical air while Sadio Mane skilfully nibbled at the ball, to Mercedes “Rambo” Sibanda?
Hacking away at skilful attackers in the centre of the park, Willard Katsande seemed at best a pale imitation of the elegant Benjamin Nkonjera and at worst a tactless mafia-like midfield enforcer out to win possession by hook or crook.
Everywhere you looked on the pitch, there hardly seemed to be any takers for boots vacated by Fabisch’s famed disciplines.
Like others before it, the class of 2017 had failed the test. The latest failure was vindication for those that lived through those euphoric months between ’92 and 93 when the Dream Team was the pride of a nation. For those whose only encounters with the Dream Team came through replays of their legendary scuffles with the continent’s best sides via grainy archive footage from ZTV, the question of how truly great that team truly was might linger.
They might wonder, silently so as not to offend any eavesdropping soccer gods, whether it is right to deify a team that failed to qualify for any major tournament.
Despite their much lauded pedigree, for the few years that they were counted among the continent’s finest, that great Zimbabwean side was the perennial bridesmaid, Africa’s nearly men who always flattered to mislead.
The story of the Dream Team essentially boils down to qualification for the 1994 World Cup and Nations Cup.
The dream of a debut at the Nations Cup lasted until a Kalusha Bwalya header with 11 minutes left on the clock during the last Group 5 match. That cliff-hanger at the National Sports Stadium was followed by what in the end was a routine trouncing by Cameroon in Yaoundé in the World Cup qualifiers’ deciding match.
So with these twin failures in mind, some may be tempted to ask why that side is so revered. How has a side that seemingly failed to navigate the hazards that African football routinely throws up taken permanent residence in Zimbabweans’ hearts?
To answer that question, one may need to look not only at what happens on the field but also what transpires off it.
While second best counts for nothing, the Dream Team’s displays against some of the continent’s top sides may help explain their popularity. The latest blundering by the current Warriors only serves to reinforce the view that post Dream Team national sides are lions when faced with the continent’s minnows but lambs when confronted with true powerhouses.
In their African Cup of Nations and World Cup qualifiers for those tournaments staged in 1994, Fabisch’s charges managed to trounce South Africa 4–1, beat Egypt 2–1 and edge Cameroon 1–0.
Sure, there was no happily ever after as the fairy-tale ended in tears and non-qualification, but here was a side that met and conversed with the giants of the game as equals and spoke the language of these football titans fluently.
In addition, qualification for The World Cup was particularly hard, with a two tier group system making sure only the best nine teams qualified for three groups of three from which only the winners progressed to the biggest spectacle in the football world. In addition, only 12 teams qualified for the Nations Cup, with the competition only expanding to include 16 teams in ’96.
The qualification for the 2017 tournament was met with euphoria, but slaying the likes of Swaziland, Guinea and Malawi is hardly the stuff that giant killing lore is made of.
Since the effective end of the Dream Team with Fabisch’s exit, the Warriors’ fights against the giants of Africa have followed a familiar script, with defeat or humiliation the usual result. In this regard the class of 2017 is not alone.
Who can forget the 0-3 drubbing at the hands of Nigeria during the qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup?
The memory of that match, famous as much for Zimbabwe’s loss as it is for Charles Mabika’s narration of Jay Jay Okocha’s devastating poetical display, is burnt into the memory of every Zimbabwean.
Egypt, Cameroon, Senegal and Nigeria all prevailed over Zimbabwe at both the 2004 and 2006 Afcon tournaments, with only dead rubber victories against Algeria and Ghana saving face.
Off the pitch, perhaps the mood and outlook of Zimbabweans has changed. Nowadays, when things start going awry, it does not take long for the public to turn the tide of scorn against their own side.
Zimbabweans are arguably more cynical than they were in the 90s and even during that promising first half against Algeria during the recent campaign, negative sentiment was prevalent.
On the internet where everyone is judge, jury and jester, the men who had been heroes in that glorious first 45 minutes turned into meme and gif fodder.
Some have argued that this cynicism is due to the hardships Zimbabweans have endured since the turn of the millennium.
However, the Dream Team also did not have it easy, as they sparkled even beneath gloom and shadow of ESAP and a drought in 1992.
“Morale was low at that time,” said Pernell McKop, an assistant coach to the Zimbabwe national team in the early 1990s, “and people clung to the idea of the Dream Team and the road to the USA, and to what we felt might be our first time at an Africa Cup of Nations. When we played those qualifiers, started to put together an unbeaten run, those days brought back some of the joy of independence, the feeling of all having a single objective. I think that’s partly why the Dream Team label stuck,” he said.
Perhaps it is unfair to compare the Dream Team with what came after, as for better or worse, terrain and conditions in Africa have changed. One thing that cannot be disputed is that although they did not sate a nation’s hunger for continental conquest, the euphoric feeling they fostered was so great even the reality of later qualification has failed to erase their unfulfilled dream.