The Warriors paid a heavy price for missed chances-and perhaps good goalkeeping from their opponents after going down by a solitary goal in the opening Group B soccer match of the African Nations Championships (Chan) at the Mehdani Stadium on Saturday night.
Niger now share top spot with South Africa, who came from behind to beat Ghana 2-1 in an earlier match at the same venue.
Ghana and Zimbabwe have no points from the opening matches and meet on Wednesday, both desperate to get their campaigns underway.
For all the dominance, creativity and enthusiasm from the start of the game, that momentary lapse in the 75th minute left substitute Abdoulkader Tiemou Adamou with acres of space to fire past badly exposed Washington Arubi in goal.
The Warriors got three chances in the opening 26 minutes of the match with Footballer of the Year Charles Sibanda and Clive Kawinga rather unlucky to break the deadlock while Joel Ngodzo rattled the cross bar from just outside the box.
And they nearly paid the paid the price for that five minutes from the breather.
Tukur Gambo was allowed space and charged forward, creating space for himself and taking a shot at goal when Arubi had moved off line to narrow the angle.
The goalkeeper did well to put his palm to the right and divert the ball away from goal.
A little bit of frustration poured into the Warriors, making errors with uncharacteristic long balls which made the West African more comfortable as they had the height.
The final ball to Kawinga was lacking and for long periods he suffered lack of service.
Kawinga had a header brilliantly saved by Niger goalkeeper Saminou Kabara Rabo three minutes after the breather, Erick Mudzingwa hit the upright in the 71st minute and 60 seconds later watched in agony as the goalkeeper’s right hand popped from nowhere to deny him.
When the West Africans scored, 15 minutes from time, Zimbabwe sought to restore parity immediately but Kawinga was denied and the five minutes of added time did not help matters either.
Speaking after the match, Niger coach Harouna Doulla, paid tribute to his goalkeeper for keeping his side in the race for a place in the last eight.
“He is an experienced goalkeeper having played or Enyimba and Coton Sport, but they also have a good goalkeeper. My boys worked hard for the victory and despite the fact that it was tough match, we won.
“The goalkeeper saved us; he was just good tonight (Saturday night).”
In the dusty and uneven Mehdani pitch-a copy and paste ground-with dim lights, the Warriors saddled with oversized and label-less kits-seemed stunned when referee of the evening Mohammodou Mal Souley blew to end the match after five minutes of added time.
Focus should immediately shift to the next game against the Black Stars of Ghana and that will determine whether Zimbabwe return home-via Nairobi, again, and the third match against South Africa is a dead rubber.
The very fact that South Africa, with a team of Division One and Two players, managed to get a better result than the Warriors who have players from the Premiership, puts more pressure on Zimbabwe to beat Ghana and set up the real decider-the Battle of the Limpopo.
Player ratings (out of 10)
Mukamba 5 (Gutu 72nd min, give more game time, he can produce results, takes some time to settle and read the game) Mapfumo 6 Sibanda 6 (Ncube 82nd min) Kawinga 7 (Maroto 82nd min)