The Herald (Harare)

Zimbabwe/Guinea: Warriors On Back Foot

ZIMBABWE'S Warriors lost an opening World Cup qualifier, for the first time in 23 years, and suffered their first home loss against Guinea, in history, after a depressing 0-1 defeat at the National Sports Stadium yesterday.

The Warriors were also the ONLY team to lose at home, in the full programme of 20 matches played in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers across Africa, from Friday night right up to last night.

By 8pm last night, Zimbabwe was just one of five countries to lose their 2014 World Cup qualifier at home around the globe, joining Bolivia (beaten 0-2 by Chile), Uzbekistan (beaten 0-1 by Iran), Samoa (thrashed 1-10 by Tahiti) and Fiji who lost 0-1 to New Zealand.

In the 20 2014 World Cup qualifiers on the continent this weekend, 13 host nations won, and six hosts drew -- Kenya (0-0 against Malawi); Gambia (1-1 against Morocco); Burkina Faso (0-0 against Congo); South Africa (1-1 against Ethiopia); Togo (1-1 against Libya) and Niger (0-0 against Gabon).

The Warriors were walking alone as the only hosts to lose in the opening weekend of the qualifiers, post the preliminary stage, in Africa in the journey to Brazil.

Not since a heavy 0-3 defeat against Algeria on June 1, 1989, in Algiers, had the Warriors crashed to a loss in the opening match of their World Cup journey, either at home or away, in more than two decades.

But that good run ended yesterday as the Warriors, forced to play in a ground they had rejected as having a sub-standard pitch as they favoured the pressure cooker of Rufaro, slumped to a defeat that complicates their 2014 World Cup adventure from day one.

Yesterday's loss marked their first defeat, at home, against Guinea in three matches against the West Africans played here and, while the Warriors started the 2010 World Cup campaign with a draw against the same opponents in Conakry, it all felt apart yesterday.

Since losing 0-3 to Algeria in '89, the Warriors had beaten Togo 1-0 in Harare in their first match of the '94 World Cup qualifiers, Madagascar 2-1 (away) in the opening game of the '98 World Cup qualifiers and the Central African Republic 1-0 (away) in the first match of the 2002 World Cup qualifiers.

The Warriors had also beaten Mauritania 3-0 (home), in the opening match of the 2006 World Cup qualifiers and battled gallantly to salvage a goalless draw, against Guinea in Conakry, in their first game of their 2010 World Cup qualifiers.

But their tendency to open a World Cup campaign brightly, which had stretched over a period of more than 20 years, was ended by Guinea yesterday as the Warriors began their battle to for Brazil on the back foot with trips to Mozambique, Egypt and Conakry on the way.

Yesterday's defeat was only the fourth time, in 32 years, that Zimbabwe have lost a home World Cup qualifier, since making their debut in the competition as an independent nation with a 0-2 loss against Cameroon in Yaounde on October 10 '80.

Algeria, who won 2-1 at Rufaro on June 25, '89; South Africa, who were leading 2-0 at the giant stadium on July 7, 2000, when the game was abandoned due to crowd trouble, and Nigeria, who coasted to an impressive 3-0 win at the same stadium on September 5, 2004, had previously won here in World Cup qualifiers.

Interestingly, two of Zimbabwe's four World Cup home defeats, came when the Warriors were under the guidance of Rahman Gumbo, who was in charge when the Super Eagles, inspired by the magic of Jay Jay Okocha, won convincingly at the National Sports Stadium.

Yesterday's match was a landmark tie for the Warriors as it marked a quarter-of-a-century of home World Cup qualifiers but they could not colour the occasion with a victory their fans desperately wanted to bring a smile to a game poisoned by controversy.

In those 25 World Cup matches here, the Warriors have won 15 games, drawn six and lost four.

Zimbabwe's record in World Cup qualifiers stands at 51 matches played, 20 won, including 15 on home soil, 12 drawn, and 19 lost, including yesterday's defeat to Guinea.

Zimbabwe and Guinea have become regular opponents, especially in the battle for a place at the World Cup finals, and both countries are yet to qualify for the global showcase.

Yesterday's match was the fifth time the two nations were meeting, since first clashing in the final battle for the '94 World Cup finals in Conakry on May 2 '93, in a game which the West Africans, inspired by the legendary Titi Camara, won 3-0.

But the Dream Team were a competitive lot and beat Guinea 1-0 at the National Sports Stadium, before inflicting a 1-0 defeat on Cameroon at the same venue, to move within just a victory, in their final group game, of a place at the '94 World Cup finals.

However, it all ended in tears for the Dream Team as they slumped to a 1-3 defeat at the hands of the Indomitable Lions in Yaounde.

But Reinhard Fabisch and his men, who also included Gumbo as one of the forwards, wrote a special story for their fans with their heroic show in their courageous battle to qualify for the '94 World Cup finals.

In 10 World Cup qualifiers for a place in the United States, that Dream Team won six games, beating Togo home and away, taking four points off Egypt and beating Angola, Cameroon and Guinea in Harare.

They drew just two games, against Egypt on neutral soil in Lyon, and against Angola in Luanda and lost only two matches, against Guinea in Conakry and Cameroon in Yaounde.

While it is still too early to make a call on how the 2014 World Cup qualifiers will turn out for the Warriors, given that this was just the first of many games, what can't be masked is the fact that the journey will now be tougher, as so often happens when you lose at home in Africa. It's hard, from now onwards, to see the Warriors getting even closer to what the Dream Team did 20 years ago.

But there are some who also argue that for everything that the Dream Team, or other Class of Warriors, did in the past, the fact remains that they failed to qualify for the World Cup finals. Maybe a campaign, built from a foundation of pain from day one line this one, could end that long wait and produce a beautiful ending.

Maybe?

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