Senior Sports Reporters
ZIMBABWE'S Mighty Warriors can only watch from a distance as neighbours Zambia get their turn at the Olympic Games currently underway in Tokyo, Japan.
Only five years ago, the Mighty Warriors were part of the festivities in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Zambia's Shepolopolo are currently representing Africa at the Games and have been placed in a tough group that includes European champions Netherlands, Brazil and China.
Former Mighty Warriors coach Shadreck Mlauzi, who took the team to the Games five years ago, yesterday admired the direction the Zambians have been taking towards development of women's football despite having been thrashed 10-3 by the Netherlands in their opening group match at the Tokyo Games on Wednesday.
Zambia sealed their Olympics ticket for the first time after beating Cameroon on the away goals rule in the two-legged tie in March last year in the final phase of the qualifiers. The teams drew 4-4 on aggregate but Zambia secured their berth on the away goals rule. They became the fifth African country to reach the Olympic women's football tournament after Nigeria, South Africa, Cameroon and Zimbabwe.
"I feel happy for Zambia, it's more than deserved," said Mlauzi.
"They are presently a country with a great football development model I have had the pleasure to see in 2015. It's not surprising that at the moment they are representing the COSAFA region and Africa! Results are something else.
"That we used to win against them is something else, they deserve every success that has come their way! Some time ago they qualified for the FIFA Under-17 Women World Cup, so you can see they are a progressive nation."
Just like Zimbabwe in 2016, the Copper Queens are taking part at the tournament for the first time. Zambia arrived at the Olympics by winning Africa's qualifying tournament.
Representing the whole continent always comes with a weight of expectation. The Zambians have to be commended for the steps they have taken regarding the development of women's football in their country.
But whether they will be able to brew some upsets, it looks unlikely after they were pummelled 10-3 by the Netherlands in their opening game on Wednesday.
The margin of defeat suggest a hopelessly one-sided match. Netherlands star Vivianne Miedema was at her usual best to hand the Zambian women's football team their worst ever loss. This was also the highest-scoring women's football match in Olympics history.
Miedema is one of the best scorers on the planet with 77 goals in just 97 caps. Miedema deflated the Zambians with four goals in the match on Wednesday as Netherlands underlined their superiority.
Zambia were not always going to get it easy against the Dutch, who are currently the women's champions of Europe after winning the title in 2017. They were also runners-up in the 2019 Women's World Cup.
Amid the opening match gloom, there was something to cheer the Zambians' spirit going into their next game against China tomorrow. Shepolopolo skipper Barbra Banda, who plies her trade in China, was standout with a hat-trick of her own at the big stage.
Zimbabwe also had a similar baptism of fire at the quadrennial Games in 2016. Predictably, they lost all their games - 1-6 to the Germans, 1-3 to the Canadians and 1-6 to Australia -- but that they scored, in all their matches, was hailed as a triumph of their South American adventure.
For Mlauzi, the Mighty Warriors qualification remains one of the proudest moments for Zimbabwean football.
"Let me begin by saying qualifying for the Olympics was my proudest moment to date," said Mlauzi.
"Seeing the national flag being lifted up gave me a sense of satisfaction in which behavioural psychologists such as Abraham Maslow would have described as self actualisation. So fulfilling, gratifying, one runs out of words to describe the feeling."
The natural thing that was supposed to happen was to see women's football going up in Zimbabwe, buoyed by the Olympics participation.
However, Zimbabwe have failed to build on that platform. Women's football has not been visible in Zimbabwe since the last Olympics.
Although women's football was specifically handed US$500 000 by FIFA, to help it cope with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is very little to show it's a sector which received such a windfall.
The domestic league has been in shambles, even before the advent of coronavirus. The team has performed dismally at the regional COSAFA tournament where they lost by huge margins in the last two editions.
Mostly, the problems had to do with administrative shortcomings. The qualifiers for the Olympic Games were also caught up in the chaos to the extent that the players boycotted a qualifying match against the same Zambian team that they had beaten on their way to the 2016 Games in Rio.
In November 2019, the Mighty Warriors, were in no show for a home Olympics qualifier against Zambia Shepolopolo which was slated for the National Sports Stadium in protest after ZIFA failed to pay their allowances for COSAFA matches played a month before.
The Mighty Warriors were trailing Zambia after they had gone down 0-5 in their first meeting in Lusaka and forfeited the return match 0-3, to lose 0-8, on aggregate.
"Have we regressed as nation? It will be unfair for to comment on this as it will great disrespect to my mate Kwinji (Sithetheliwe Sibanda). All that I can say is that the neglect, frustration and lack of support has worsened! It's very sad!
"Not only the Olympics but we had a dream even of qualifying for the FIFA Women World Cup. It was dashed by decision of the leaders.
"Qualifications would have no doubt improved the profile of the sport even further, it would have even attracted some form support and given the aspiring young footballers role models and a great desire to play the game.
"At the moment which parent would want their daughter to play soccer? I don't have the answer to that question," said Mlauzi.
What should the Zimbabwe football stakeholders have done to build on that historic moment after qualifying for the Rio Games?
"a. Government should have played a major role here! They should have fulfilled their promise of stands. Five years down the line nothing has materialized.
"b. Start or reviving of a professional league.
"c. Registration of junior teams for FIFA World Cups or International Competitions.
"d. Capacity Development initiatives for all stakeholders esp Coach Education- Technical Development remains elusive
"e. Implement the Long Term Athlete Development model -- this is significant for long term success.
"f. Strategic Planning is at the heart of this programme.
"g. Re-aligning our coaching education system to the 21st Century.
"h. An objective review of progress and performance with a unbiased body.
"i. A robust TI programme of Under-12s for specialized training!
"j. Lastly, incentivisation and more rewards. Human scientific management theorists such as Mayo will attest to this! Without this, a human who reaches a plateau or reaches a pinnacle of success will recede," said Mlauzi.
Former Association of National Olympic Committee of Africa (ANOCA) technical director Robert Mutsauki also shared his views in his interview with The Herald.
"Something should have been done to ensure that (they qualify) because I thought that was a low hanging fruit.
"In other words, they were the closest and at the time when they were doing the qualifiers, it was before Covid-19. So at that time these restrictions we are talking about were not there.
"So they had an equal chance of qualifying like the others. That would have given us a team sport and also for the Mighty Warriors it would have been good history because it would have been a second consecutive qualification.
"And maybe this time they would have gone and done better than what they did in Rio. This time with the experience and all that, they could have improved. So we missed that," said Mutsauki.