BY HENRY MHARA
THE African Nations Championships (Chan) tournament begins today in Yaoundé, Cameroon, with Zimbabwe opening their bid to win the tournament for the first time since its inauguration in 2009.
Coach Zdravko Logarušić expects his men to shake off the rust that has come with a year of inactivity and “defy the odds,” as the Croat put it in an interview this week.
But defying those odds would depend on the Warriors getting a good start, according to star midfielder Denver Mukamba.
The team has generally been slow starters at Chan, and the Ngezi Platinum Stars midfielder expects the squad to shed that tag when they face off with hosts in the tournament’s curtain raiser at the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium this evening.
Kick off is 6pm Zimbabwe time.
Zimbabwe have not won any of their opening matches in the four previous Chan editions that they have participated, but Mukamba, one of the senior players in the team, expects this squad to reverse that trend.
“Starting the tournament well is key in how we will perform going forward. Imagine what a victory against the hosts in the opening match would do to our confidence,” Mukamba said, exuding confidence.
“Our stay here will depend on the result that we will get tomorrow, so we will have to work hard and try to do our best.”
The Warriors’ preparations for the tournament were far from ideal.
Logarušić was forced to pick players who were inactive for a whole year after last season’s league campaign was written off due to coronavirus.
Then as the team was beginning to intensify their preparations, COVID-19 hit their camp, affecting nine players and six officials, resulting in discontinuation of training.
Training only resumed on Saturday after the players and officials had returned negative results following a retest.
Despite experiencing such hiccups, Mukamba believes they can still manage to hold their own in a group that also has Burkina Faso and Mali, two teams that Zimbabwe have met in previous editions.
“We didn’t have the best of preparations, but that should not be a big issue. We have to work around that problem. The main thing for us would be lack of fitness since we haven’t played competitive matches in a long time. So for us, game management will be key,” he said.
“We will have to try and play the game at our own pace, knowing when to attack and to slow down things. We can’t take these teams toe to toe, especially in these early stages of the competition since our fitness is not yet up there. Remember, most of the teams have been competitive and are better equipped physically.”
Mukamba also wants to play well in this tournament for other reasons.
“This is a chance for us to show the world what we can do and possibly get contracts abroad. We know the opening match will attract a lot of attention, so we can only do ourselves a favour by playing well. You never know who will be watching these matches. We have spoken about this in camp, so will play with this at the back of our mind.”
A number of football scouts, especially from Europe, are expected to invade Cameroon in the coming few days in search of new talent from the African continent.
Mukamba, arguably one of the best talents to ever emerge in Zimbabwe, has had his career outside the country blighted by indiscipline.
It was not clear yesterday on how Logarušić would line up his squad for the opening match, with the final selection hinging on the results of a number of medical tests, including COVID-19 and MRI cardiac, which were done on the team yesterday.
“The players spent the better part of the day going through some tests and the starting team can only be announced after we get the results,” Warriors team manager Wellington Mupandare told NewsDay Weekender.
“We also have the final training session at the match venue this evening (last night), so a lot could change there,” he added.
This will be the fifth time that Zimbabwe will be participating at this biannual tournament since the inaugural competition in Cote d’Ivoire in 2009, which was by invitation.
They have failed to win their opening matches in the previous four editions.
In Cote d’Ivoire, they drew all their three group matches to finish third in the group and crash out of the tournament.
At the 2011 competition in Sudan, they lost 1-0 to Niger and again failed to make it beyond the group stage.
It is at the 2014 edition in South Africa that the Warriors reached their finest hour, finishing fourth in the competition.
But again, they had drawn their opening two matches against Morocco and Uganda before beating Burkina Faso in the final group match to advance to the quarter-finals.
Zimbabwe beat Mali in the quarters before they were knocked out by Libya in the semi finals after a penalty shoot-out.
They went on to lose 1-0 to Nigeria in the third place play-offs.
Two years later at the 2016 edition in Rwanda, the Warriors lost to Zambia and Mali in their opening two matches.
They drew with Uganda in the third match to crash out of the tournament with a single point.
They did not qualify for the 2018 edition.
Now on their return to this competition reserved strictly for players playing in the domestic leagues of their countries, the Warriors are seeking to defy odds and possibly surpass their 2014 run, as has been demanded by coach Logarušić.