The Sunday News
ZIMBABWE looked set to beat Congo-Brazzaville on 14 July 1991 to set a last Group F win and qualify situation against Malawi in Lilongwe two weeks later in the build up to the 1992 Africa Cup of Nations finals.
Fast forward to 28 years later, the Warriors find their fate in the hands of an opposition that shattered the nation’s debut appearance at the continental showpiece at the National Sports Stadium in Harare on 24 March.
Going into the match, Zimbabwe needed a win which would have moved them to six points, one behind group leaders, Congo-Brazzaville, with the Malawi match a foregone conclusion that they would win it. So pregnant with expectations that a 55 000-strong crowd filled the National Sports Stadium. There was so much excitement about the prospect of Peter Ndlovu flying in from Coventry to team up in attack with his elder brother Adam and Warriors captain Moses Chunga.
To add to the puzzle, Willard Khumalo, who was playing his football in Germany’s lower leagues, was available for the match.
The team had lost the first leg on 2 September 1990 2-0 away at the Stade de la Revolution in Brazzaville. Sunday News last week caught up with former Highlanders defender, Alexander “Cool Ruler” Maseko, the Zimbabwe football legend who was part of the starting eleven.
Going into the match Maseko had one thing in mind. This was a perfect opportunity to take his career to another level.
In 1990 he had won the unique league and cup double, a feat only achieved by Black Rhinos and Dynamos in independent Zimbabwe up to that 4 November 1990 when an Adam Ndlovu hat-trick saw Bosso write themselves into football history.
After a clean sweep of all silverware since his arrival in 1984, Maseko had enjoyed a magnificent year and looked forward to playing in the Africa Cup of Nations finals.
In an interview from his South African base where he moved upon that country’s admission to international football to join Mamelodi Sundowns, the Cool Ruler told of their anguish of seeing their dreams go up in smoke. He refused to apportion blame to anyone and said they failed to qualify as a team. Zimbabwe had on the afternoon taken the lead through Henry McKop, with the Warriors going into the second half 2-1 in front after the late Adam had added another.
Seconds away from taking their tally to six points in their group, one point behind Congo-Brazzaville, level on goal aggregate with a win over Malawi, a side they had dominated in years prior to that day, no sane football person imagined that result.
It turned out to be a miscarriage at the Chief’s Village where all villagers had come for celebrations of the birth of a prince, the heir apparent as the visitors made it 2-2 in the dying seconds of the match.
Jean Claude Mbebe had jumped high to nod the ball past goalkeeper John Sibanda who appeared to have been of two minds as the cross was swung into the box, either to stay on his line or go for the cross. When he opted to move off his lines it was a shade too slow as Mbebe got his head to the ball, to qualify for the following year’s finals. A dream for Maseko and other troops was shattered on that fateful afternoon. Sibanda’s international career was also destroyed as the nation crucified him.
Armando Ferreira was sacked as Zimbabwe coach with technical director the late Ben Koufie coming up under scrutiny.
Ferreira’s assistant the late Ashton “Papa” Nyazika appeared to distance himself from the result and team selection. He was of the view that the foreign-based legion had failed to carry the day and had played below par as they had not had enough time with locals at training. Zifa had promised to break the bank and pay the players $1 500 each for a win and an extra $50 per goal.
“We had enough motivation going into the match. I wanted to take my career to the next level and playing in the Afcon finals was it,” said Maseko.
As to who should shoulder the blame for the result, Maseko pointed out that as players they had given it their all. He said such things happen in football, citing a recent howler by former African Footballer of the Year Dennis Onyango in which he fumbled a harmless looking ball to allow Polokwane City a share of the spoils against Mamelodi Sundowns.
“We shoulder the blame as players of that day. It is not fair to look at John Sibanda or anyone, hope you saw what a former African footballer did during the week, we did all we could as a team.”
He dismissed talk that a senior Government official had had a hand in the team selection that had resulted in Sibanda thrown in between the goalposts. There were suggestions from certain sections that Ferreira and Koufie had been instructed to field certain players at a meeting that Nyazika did not attend.
“Team selection during those days was by merit. You were judged on your previous game’s performance and nothing else. I think all the players deserved their call up including Sibanda who was among the best in the country at that time. It’s not true that there were undue influences on the coaches. Things did not happen to expectations on the day and it is perhaps why people came up with all sorts of theories. We lost out through a mistake,” said Maseko.
As for the 24 March match against the same opponents in which Zimbabwe needed to win to qualify for the finals to be held in Egypt next year, Maseko says a positive approach and teamwork would see us through.
“We have a good chance to qualify and the nation has to rally behind the boys,” said the former Bosso defence supremo.
Zimbabwe fielded the following players on the day:
John Sibanda, Angirai Chapo, Paul Gundani, Alexander Maseko, Ephraim Chawanda, Willard Khumalo, Memory Mucherahowa, Moses Chunga, Peter Ndlovu, Henry McKop (Max Makanza-Lunga 41st minute), Adam Ndlovu (Wilfred Mugeyi 70th minute)