After a 21-month adventure which has seen them battle in two major cities either side of the Congo River, and a third on the shores of the Atlantic, the Warriors will today kick-start the final countdown of their campaign amid a wave of great expectations.
And, of course, there is also a palpable fear of failure among their fans who, in the past, have seen such golden opportunities being squandered as their Warriors crumbled under the weight of the task at hand.
It’s the conclusion of an adventure across Africa, covering the equivalent of a 3 000km road trip, with these Warriors hoping to provide the fairytale ending to a tale in which they came of age in Kinshasa.
They also found a way to avoid defeat in Brazzaville, a place and assignment which in the past they would possibly have lost, before they stumbled in Monrovia where a draw would have been enough to seal the deal.
Amid all this they have been unbreakable at home and would have made it two out of two wins in their fortress, and celebrated qualification with two games to spare, had they not been denied a second goal by a diabolical call from an Egyptian assistant referee against DRC. Today, the Warriors troop back into camp at the Yadah Hotel, where they will join the next generation of this team, the Young Warriors, who checked in yesterday ahead of their African Games and Olympic qualifier against Mozambique on Friday. The Young Warriors, who welcome a number of Euro-based stars in a revolution that has seeing footballers with roots to Zimbabwe tracing their footsteps home to play for their fatherland, has been camped at the ZIFA Village.
But all that changed yesterday when they were taken to the Yadah Hotel where the new breed of their Euro recruits, used to the comfort and luxury of five-star camps at their European clubs, will certainly get good impressions of the facilities back home. For the Warriors, the final showdown will decide their destiny — the difference between a winter trip to Egypt for a dance with the continent’s best or a painful conversion into armchair viewers of the first 24-team Nations Cup finals. On the surface the mission looks simple — a draw, in the worst case scenario, will be enough on Sunday for them to qualify for the 2019 AFCON finals.
But, as results around the football world have shown in recent weeks, the word simple doesn’t belong to the vocabulary of this game anymore and the Warriors know they have an epic battle on their hands. The identity of the opponents, the Red Devils of Congo, has also spiced up the occasion because of what happened, 28 years ago, when the last time the visitors were in town for a similar assignment.
Because of the tragedy that unfolded, that day, with the Congolese scoring a comical last-gasp goal to force the draw they needed to qualify and deny the Warriors the victory they required, and clearly deserved, to take control of the campaign with a game to play.
And, because, of the words which the Warriors Ghanaian mentor, Ben Koufie, uttered as he surveyed the wreckage of the country’s shattered AFCON dreams in a post-mortem of intense brutality that would eventually claim his scalp.
Koufie claimed the Warriors would never qualify for the Nation’ Cup finals, even if they hired a coach from the moon, and with a doomed qualifying campaign that followed for the next dozen years, his words started to take a chilling and prophetic meaning.
When the Zambians arrived at the same stadium, two years later, their team decimated by a plane crash which wiped out a generation of their finest footballers, and somehow pick-pocketed a point they needed to qualify for the ’94 AFCON finals, the chorus that followed was that Koufie was right.
That the same Zambian side would go all the way and qualify for the final of the ’94 Nations Cup final, where they narrowly lost to Nigeria, amplified the theory among the Warriors fans that their team could have been cursed.
Koufie died three years ago, living long enough to witness the Warriors finally playing at the AFCON finals, as football once again proved it wasn’t a game rooted in conspiracy theories and weird dark arts.
By the time of his death, having been proved wrong by the Warriors qualification for the 2004 Nations Cup finals, Koufie was preaching a different gospel claiming he had been misquoted by the football writers in that moment of sadness.
But that’s material for the historians to record for future generations to deal with.
What matters, right now, is the challenge which the Warriors will face on Sunday, ironically, against the very Congolese side which, in that drama of ’91, came here, fought and conquered as they got the result they wanted.
Some fans have claimed this is the biggest home AFCON challenge their Warriors have faced in more than a quarter-of-century since Kalusha Bwalya’s late header denied their men a chance to play in Tunisia in ’94.
That will always be open to debate but what can’t be disputed is that no AFCON home battle for these Warriors has carried such a baggage of history, such a throwback to disaster and such an opportunity for redemption. For them to finally make these Congolese pay for the pain inflicted by that Class of ’91, for the way their spectacular smash-and-grab mission haunted goalkeeper John Sibanda into his grave and for the 60 000 who had the misfortune of watching that horror show from their front row seats inside the giant stadium.
For Peter Ndlovu, the greatest Warriors of all-time, and all the tears the Flying Elephant shed in the dressing room that day in ’91 when his goal eventually counted for nothing after that late Congolese equaliser.
And, of course, for Moses Chunga, the skipper of that Warriors team, who fittingly sat on Ndlovu’s side in that dressing room, unknowingly he was passing the baton of the team’s leadership to this teenage wiz-kid grieving for a country he would serve with distinction. This was Chunga’s best chance to play at the AFCON finals and, for 89 minutes in that game against the Congolese, everything was going to plan before disaster struck in what effectively was the beginning of an end of an international career that promised so much but delivered very little. There are so many scripts to this tale, so many angles to this rivalry — the punishing weight of history saddling these Warriors, the possibility of lightning striking twice driving these Congolese and a ticket to paradise on offer in a battle where the winner takes everything.
And, as Swedish super group ABBA once sang, the loser will stand small. What a big week in store for these Warriors, the first generation of local footballers denied a chance to try and play at the World Cup finals, the generation that ended our 11-year wait for a return to the AFCON finals. The generation we now expect to exorcise that Congolese ghost and everything horrible that it has stood for.