Zimbabwe left with regrets as Afcon dream ends

The Warriors’ Nations Cup campaign is over, with the Southern Africans never truly showing the continent their qualities

Despite being tipped as one of the Africa Cup of Nations’ dark horses, Zimbabwe’s campaign is over after three matches, one goal, one point, and a bucketload of regrets.

There were reasons for encouragement after their two opening matches—a narrow defeat by Egypt and a 1-1 draw with Uganda—but their tournament ended in misery on Sunday, as they were crushed 4-0 by the Democratic Republic of Congo in Cairo.

Coach Sunday Chidzambwa cut a dejected figure after their final group game, and his chances of remaining in his post moving forward can reasonably be open to question.

However, Zimbabwe’s campaign hinged on several critical moments that turned against them—they faced more than their fair share of misfortune and have comfortably been the unluckiest of the 24 contenders in Egypt.

While it’s trite to say that fortune can decide teams’ campaigns, few have endured more misfortune than Zimbabwe over the last two weeks.

The Warriors, for example, started each different match with a new goalkeeper, after two of their stoppers suffered injury setbacks during the campaign.

George Chigova, the nominal Number One, was suspended for the opener, and 32-year-old Edmore Sibanda was drafted in between the sticks ahead of their game against Egypt.

He performed admirably, delivering a series of fine saves, before being injured himself, and was replaced by Elvis Chipezeze.

Zimbabwe were down to their last keeper.

With Sibanda ruled out, Chigova stepped back into the fold for the Uganda game, with Chipezeze demoted again.

Ahead of the DRC, however, where a win would have been enough for Zim to have progressed, misfortune struck once more.

The imposing Chigova picked up a hamstring injury during the prematch warm-up, and with Sibanda still sidelined, Chipezeze was drafted in.

Zimbabwe were down to their last keeper again, and this time, Chipezeze—nominally the third choice—had only learned moments before the contest that he was to feature. 

Only adding to his plight, he was up against a DRC team who knew they needed goals—and lots of them—to progress.

The goalkeeper was responsible for a disastrous howler—one of several we’ve seen at the tournament—in the fourth minute, when he casually pushed Jacques Maghoma’s weak free kick onto the crossbar, only to stagger back over his goalline as the ball rebounded into Jonathan Bolingi’s path.

The tone had been set for the game, Zimbabwe’s gameplan had been undone, and Chipezeze’s night would get worse.

He gave away a penalty when he brought down Cedric Bakambu in the 34th minute, and then spilled a crossfield shot by substitute Elia Meschak 12 minutes from time, allowing the waiting Britt Assombalonga to touch home his first international goal.

Chipezeze was understandably inconsolable after the match—publishing an apology on Twitter on Monday—although he was never really meant to feature in this tournament, having only made his debut last month, and made two appearances before his entrance against Egypt.

It wasn’t the only misfortune that befell Zimbabwe.

In Marvelous Nakamba, the Warriors possess one of Africa’s finest central playmakers.

The Club Brugge man—who’s been heavily linked with a move to Premier League new boys Aston Villa—boasts composure and poise in possession, the ability to pick out a pass, and the vision to create chances for those ahead of him.

Against Egypt, the 25-year-old completed more passes than any other Zimbabwean—and more than all but four Egyptians—he had the awareness to know when to hit the ball long to pick out the Warriors’ wide forwards, as well as the physical Nyasha Mushekwi, to stretch the Pharaohs’ defence.

While Khama Billiat is celebrated as Zim’s star man, Nakamba is arguably their most important, and without him, the team were a completely different prospect.

Both Danny Phiri and Thabani Kamusoko were assessed as replacements, but neither can come close to matching Nakamba’s quality in possession. They were clearly inferior options, although Chidzambwa—perhaps to his credit—opted not to blame Nakamba’s injury for his own team’s early elimination.

“In the Afcon tournament, you’re allowed to bring 23 players,” he told journalists, “and if any of the players are injured, you need to replace them. 

“We replaced both injured players, so those who played [against the DRC] must deliver. 

“We lost because we played badly, and we must take the blame, we must regroup, and we must find the way forward.”

A noble stance, or a coach unaware of the true value of his side’s true jewel in the crown?

Chidzambwa’s own low-key approach ought to also come under the spotlight, as should the individualist play of Billiat.

Eye-catching perhaps, but at times, it wasn’t always clear whether the attacker was working with his teammates or apart from them.

Sunday Chidzambwa coach of Zimbabwe during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations Finals.

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Knowledge Musona’s miss against Uganda and Denis Onyango’s save in the same game are also evidence of the fine margins upon which tournament progress can be decided. In almost every instance, things didn’t go Zimbabwe’s way.

Predictably, their pre-match strike due to unpaid allowances—and threatening to boycott the opener—casts a long shadow over their showing in Egypt.

Other teams—notably Cameroon ahead of the 1990 World Cup—have been able to grow stronger through a pre-tournament bust-up with their own federation, but not Zimbabwe, seemingly, and we’ll always wonder just how much their own financial distraction ahead of the campaign led to their early exit.

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