/ 27 January 2017

Zim mood sombre after Afcon exit

Zimbabwe's players walk off the pitch at half-time during the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations group A football match between Zimbabwe and Tunisia.
Zimbabwe's players walk off the pitch at half-time during the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations group A football match between Zimbabwe and Tunisia.

The people of Gabon staged a silent but noticeable protest and started a biting boycott of the remaining matches of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations tournament following the elimination of their team.

And down south, a Zimbabwean MP reportedly proposed that the national football team be dragged to an army barracks and forced to undergo military training on patriotism.

The frustrated MP expressed the views of the general populace, which was not impressed with the tepid performance of the Warriors and demanded answers about their shocking first-round elimination.

Zimbabwean Sports Minister Makhosini Hlongwane apologised this week for the poor performance of the Warriors at the Afcon in Gabon.

It should be remembered that the Warriors had snubbed a state gala dinner in their honour prior to their departure, demanding a written undertaking that their promised incentive bonuses would be paid.

At the end of the team’s 4-2 hammering at the hands of Tunisia, captain Willard Katsande hinted strongly that he might call time on his international career or, if he stayed, would play a role in helping younger players to be seamlessly integrated into the national team.

If the Zimbabwean government subjects the players to military detention, it would be the second time in the history of the game that such action has been taken against footballers.

After the 2000 Afcon tournament, the Côte d’Ivoire military government detained the underperforming national squad at a military barracks and released them after three days — but not before they were brought to Abidjan, where they received a dressing-down from General Robert Guéï.

The Ivorians have bowed out again, this time as defending champions after failing to get out of Group  C. Their coach, Michel Dussuyer, as well as Algeria coach George Leekens, Alain Giresse of Mali and Zimbabwe’s Callisto Pasuwa have become victims of the tournament.

Zimbabwe paid the price, in part, because of their sloppy investigations into the alleged match-fixing scandal, in which numerous people were implicated in helping Asian betting syndicates to fix domestic match results.

When the time came to select a strong Afcon squad, key players were overlooked because of suspicion that they could still have links with the “match-fixing cartel”. The result was that the Warriors were forced to go to “war” with a weakened side.

“We worked really hard,” said former Gabonese captain Daniel Cousin after the national team was eliminated from the tournament. “But I think the game against Guinea-Bissau crippled us. We should not have drawn that game. But that is football and life goes on. We must find the strength to pull through and continue to work harder to qualify for Afcon 2019.

“I know the atmosphere is heavy and people on the ground are sad. But that is football,” Cousin said.

“It is a shame [because] we had such good players and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is a world-class player. But despite everything, we just could not score and this is the price we paid.”

To their credit, Gabon tried to be perfect hosts. But the frightening number of players who suffered from an assortment of career-threatening injuries was testimony to the poor state of the football grounds, particularly in Oyem and Port-Gentil.

Sensing the mood of the people, President Ali Bongo Ondimba paid a surprise visit to the national team’s hotel on the eve of their make-or-break group match against Cameroon to motivate them and urge them to lift their game.

When asked whether the president’s visit to buck up his players put the opposing team under further pressure, Cameroon coach Hugo Broos snorted.

“Will the president be part of the playing personnel? What position will he be playing? He might give them an inspiring lecture but on the field he would not be there. Instead, it would be 11 against 11 and His Excellency would be sitting in the VIP stands.”