And so the story ends.
After promising so much, the national Under-23 football side, touted as the “Golden Generation” failed to deliver when it mattered most.
This is the crop of players that has been regarded as the finest to emerge in the country since the turn of the new millennium, and obviously the nation had high hopes.
Qualifying for the All-Africa Games was the least they were expected to do, or put bluntly, they should have done so without even breaking a sweat.
What started as a positive qualifying campaign for the Young Warriors as they made a easy pickings out of nemesis Zambia and Botswana soon turned sour one forgettable afternoon at the Sinaba Stadium in Johannesburg when the team just decided not to shine and eventually succumbed by a 2-0 scoreline to hosts South Africa.
Still, the nation had hopes that the “Golden Generation” would turn the tables when Amaglug-glug turned up at the country’s ceremonial home of football, Rufaro Stadium, for the reverse fixture.
With Simba Sithole, Archford Gutu, Mathew Rusike, Lincoln Zvasiya and Ariel Sibanda in the Young Warriors squad, a 2-0 win that could have sent the match into a penalty shootout looked realistic.
Even a 3-0 win that would have sent the Friday Phiri-coached squad through to the 10th edition of All-Africa Games to be held in Maputo in September looked possible.
With that in mind, the Young Warriors started the Sunday match on the offensive, with Gutu and Sithole testing the South African goalkeeper Boaleta Pule in the first 10 minutes.
Rusike was causing havoc in the left side of the midfield with his deft touches and his direct runs into the opposition territory, but when the lanky midfielder limped off the pitch midway through the first half, all hopes of a comeback gradually started to fade.
Gutu, for a moment, revived the slim hopes two minutes after the breather when his flashing header off a Timire Mamvura cross beat Pule, and by that time the whole nation became abuzz with optimism.
Another goal or at least two were still achievable — so everybody thought.
But with the opposition sitting too deep in their area, there was need for the technical bench to reshuffle the initial plan — perhaps introducing natural wingers to stretch the South African defence wide and create space for strikers Sithole and Donald Ngoma, but that did not happen and the country is mourning today.
But what went wrong?
Was it Phiri’s tactical capabilities, suspensions to regular players like Denver Mukamba and Devon Chafa or was it simply that the whole team choked on the big occasion?
Analysts have said Zifa should take all the flak. They argue that the country’s mother body did not show the necessary support this special group deserved.
Reports are some of the players are still owed bonuses from games against Zambia and Botswana. And every time when they were called into camp, they were booked into sub-standard city lodges and at the Zifa Village which has a record of erratic supply of basic services like water and electricity, hence the team’s morale was always rock bottom.
Others have also pointed out at the structural set-up that the technical team is to blame.
They question why coaches like Rodwell Dhlakama and Taurai Mangwiro, who have worked with the bulk of the current crop of players at junior level, were not incorporated into the existing Young Warriors technical team.