Zimbabwe: A Showdown Made in Heaven

23 January 2020

IT'S a blockbuster battle coated with excellence -- Peter Ndlovu slaloming past the entire defence to score probably the finest individual goal, by a Warrior, in history.

It's also a grand showdown, dripping in blood, forever associated with the tragedy which unfolded at the National Sports Stadium on July 9, 2000, when a stampede left 13 Warriors fans, including a six-year-old boy, dead.

An explosive derby that evokes questions of what might have been, had fate not ruled otherwise, and Desmond Maringwa's promising football career had gone full circle, and not brought to a premature end, by a freak injury?

He outshone Quinton Fortune, then playing for Manchester United, with a midfield masterclass, in that ill-fated match.

And, of course, it's also an encounter with a touch of romance -- Willard Mashinkila-Khumalo suggesting Doctor Khumalo was too beautiful to play football.

They even adopted our colours, and the designs of our kits, and refined them, in partnership with their wealthy sponsors like Adidas and Nike, into quality apparel which we can never match, after that four goal humbling on their return to the international fold in 1992.

The Warriors versus Bafana Bafana!

It's a World Cup/AFCON qualifying battle that rarely comes along, the last one was on May 5, 2001, in Johannesburg, which the South Africans won 2-1 courtesy of goals by Shaun Bartlett and Benni McCarthy.

The immortal Peter Ndlovu converted a 57th minute penalty for Zimbabwe.

But, when it does come along, in this case after 19 years, it has a way of capturing the imagination, provoking debate and taking many down memory lane.

Some of the battles are personal, others are perennial but, on the occasion the two teams meet, there is no disguising that the stakes are usually high.

"We meet on the field!!!," South Africa's celebrated sportscaster, Robert Marawa, sent me a message on Twitter yesterday, complete with images of some punches as if to illustrate that Bafana Bafana will win this next battle against the Warriors.

Yesterday, on their official website, FIFA marked the battle between Zimbabwe and South Africa as one of the standout matches in the battle for a place in Qatar in 2022.

"Africa's national teams now know their route to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 following the draw for the second round of the qualifying competition on Tuesday 21 January," FIFA said in their report.

"The ceremony was held at The Nile Ritz-Carlton in Cairo, Egypt and saw the 14 first-round winners and the 26 highest-ranked African nations in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking drawn into ten groups of four.

"The second round is scheduled to begin in October 2020, when the teams will play each other home and away in a mini-league format.

"The ten group winners will progress to the third and final round, which will feature five two-legged play-off ties.

"Some of the standout fixtures include Cameroon v Côte d'Ivoire, two teams with World Cup finals pedigree, South Africa v Zimbabwe and Egypt v Gabon, the last of which will see elite English Premier League forwards Mohamed Salah and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang headlining their sides."

While Ghana's Black Stars, with three World Cup appearances, are the favourites in this group, and Ethiopia are the underdogs, there is no question that the matches between the Warriors and Bafana Bafana will be the standout fixtures.

One of the reasons is that a number of the Warriors' stars, including Khama Billiat, ply their trade in South Africa and have become heroes, to a number of South African football fans who could, for a moment, be forced to shelve their attachment in support of their motherland.

The other comes from that, for all its success stories -- including featuring at the World Cup finals three times and winning the AFCON finals once -- and its considerable riches, South African football do not have a player, right now, in the English Premiership.

Percy Tau might be on the books of Brighton and Hove but he has been forced to play in the Belgian top-flight league, and second-tier league, to qualify for a work permit while Marvelous Nakamba secured his work permit at the first time of asking when he joined Aston Villa.

Such seemingly little things mean a lot, when it comes to battles among the fans, especially in derby showdowns where most of the talking is done away from the field.

If you ask the Warriors' fans about their most memorable game, it's likely they will rank their team's 4-1 thrashing of Bafana Bafana on August 16, 1992, at the National Sports Stadium in a '94 AFCON qualifier, as one of their best moments.

That's the day when Peter Ndlovu scored a gem of a goal, slaloming past virtually the entire South African defence, to score a wonder goal which some feel is the greatest individual goal scored by a Warrior.

Rahman Gumbo scored, too, in that match, with a thunderous effort from range.

And, if you ask the Warriors' fans about their worst day, it's also likely they will tell you about the tragedy at the National Sports Stadium on July 9, 2000, when 13 fans died in a stampede, forcing the premature ending of their 2002 World Cup qualifier against Bafana Bafana.

The South Africans were leading 2-0 when chaos broke out.

Now, the two teams are set to clash again and this has even pushed the news that Serbian coach, Milutin Sredojevi, who appeared to be the fans' favourite to land the job as Warriors' head coach, now appears set to take over as the Chipolopolo gaffer.

Various Zambian media outlets reported yesterday that the Football Association of Zambia have settled for the man known as Micho, who was the mastermind of the revival of the Ugandan Cranes into a force again, as their man to guide Chipolopolo.

According to the Zambian Mail, FAZ settled for Micho ahead of former Liverpool defender, Abel Xavier, and Belgian gaffer Ivan Minnaert.

The Warriors don't have a coach right now and were not represented at the draw in Cairo.

Bafana Bafana coach, Molefi Nsteki, was in Cairo for the draw.

"Every draw is a tough draw because the expectation is that all the teams that are in the top 40, they all are playing to qualify, so we are fully aware of Ghana and their qualities, same with Zimbabwe and Ethiopia," he said.

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