WHILE Independence in 1980 brought renewed hope for better fortunes for the country, it was a different story on the national football front as the nation struggled to make a major breakthrough.
For over two decades, Zimbabwe had attempted and fell short of qualifying for the continental soccer jamboree — the Africa Cup of Nations.
The closest we had come was when the late German expatriate coach, Reinhard Fabisch and his adored Dream Team had their dream agonisingly extinguished by the visiting Zambian side riding on the brilliance of their talisman, Kalusha Bwalya.
With the precious point nicked by Chipolopolo in our backyard in that morale-sapping 1-1 stalemate following a late strike by Bwalya went our hopes of an appearance at Afcon up in smoke.
A barren spell then set in and persisted for 20 years, with the Warriors failing to make the cut for the competition.
Zimbabwe, however, grew into a formidable football force in the region at the turn of the millennium by dominating the Cosafa Cup. Their first crown came in 2000 before four other triumphs (2003, 2005, 2009, 2017 and 2019). At six, we have won the trophy a record times.
But in spite of our superiority in Southern Africa, an appearance at Afcon remained elusive as we continued fumbling on the wayside.
Enter the legendary gaffer, Sunday “Mhofu” Chidzambwa and his troops to make history in 2004 by qualifying for Afcon for the first time ever!
As the nation revelled in that feat, Manicaland was part of the success story as three of its sons, Lazarus Muhoni, Alois Bunjira and Lloyd Chitembwe starred in that glorious qualifiers run.
The former even earned the nickname Mali after his solitary strike sank the West African giants at National Sports Stadium on the Sunday afternoon of September 8, 2002. Muhoni’s contribution was telling at the end of the campaign as it helped his country secure a slot at the biennial competition.
Sharing the dressing room with Muhoni at that time was Chitembwe, whose presence in the squad was also felt when he kept Mali danger man Seydou Keita on a tight leash; marking him out of the game and blunting his threat. Although the former CAPS United anchorman did not make the squad for the finals, he had played his bit part.
Bunjira, on the other hand, was a hugely peripheral figure throughout the campaign. He, however, was on the plane to Tunisia.
Muhoni, for good measure, started Zimbabwe’s opener in their debut appearance at the Afcon finals. The Sakubva-bred ex-star provided the assist for skipper Peter “Nsukuzonke” Ndlovu as the Warriors went down 2-1 to continental powerhouses Egypt.
“What a great honour to represent my country on such a grand stage! That was truly a remarkable experience to come from the dusty streets of Sakubva and go on to rub shoulders with the likes of Samuel Eto’o, Rigobert Song and Mohamed Aboutrika among others.
“To have scored a goal during the qualifiers and laid an assist at the tournament was a satisfactory contribution to a national cause for me. It remains easily one of the most proud moments of my career as a footballer. I still vividly recall it all with lots of nostalgia. Today, I still stand proud of having made history for my country,” said Muhoni.
Following these heroic exploits, it would not be out of context to suggest that the triumvirate of Muhoni, Chitembwe and Bunjira blazed a trail and set the pace for other Eastern stars to emulate.
And, indeed, more were to follow in their footsteps.
After premiering at the 2004 fiesta, Zimbabwe would spend another dozen years in the wilderness before bouncing back for the Gabon jamboree in 2017.
The enterprising duo of midfielder, Willard Katsande and defender, Onismor Bhasera, both La Sakubva junior products, represented Manicaland with distinction again as they featured prominently in the fruitful campaign. The former was the skipper of the ship as they docked in Central Africa for another dance among the continent’s football aristocracy.
Said the former Highway midfield general of his involvement with the squad: “Bhasera’s and my inclusion in the national team raised the province’s flag. It brought to the fore the abundant talent Manicaland boasts of. To have captained that group and made it to the Afcon finals means a lot to me and I deeply cherish it.
“My sincere hope is that that outing will help instil inspiration in other youngsters from the province who are taking the path I have walked to believe in themselves and step up to the challenge of playing for the Zimbabwe national team. Football has become big business through which one can earn a living.
“The independence we now enjoy today, thanks to our liberation struggle heroes has opened up avenues for us and one can go places when playing football. I would, therefore, like to take this opportunity to congratulate my country on the occasion of turning 41 years of sovereign rule. We must cherish the gains independence has brought us.”
True to Katsande’s sentiments, another player from the diamond-rich province – Last “Lala” Jesi — was part of the cast which recently secured a ticket for the Warriors to next year’s finals in Cameroon.
Gifted attacker Perfect Chikwende, who cut his football teeth at Chipinge-based Chawira Sports Academy, was in the thick of things as his sucker punch against Botswana clinched qualification.
As Zimbabwe celebrates 41 years of independence this Sunday, Manicland province can look back with gratification and marvel at how some of its sons have stood tall on the football pitch for a national cause.