Ricky Zililo, Senior Sports Reporter
ON Thursday night, Zimbabwe made a remarkable feat on the continental football landscape, qualifying for the next edition of the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) finals in style, with a game to spare when they beat Botswana 1-0 in Francistown.
The Warriors’ victory in Botswana secured Zimbabwe a second place finish with an unassailable eight points, while Zambia and Botswana are both tied on four points.
For a soccer-crazy nation like Zimbabwe, qualifying for a third consecutive Afcon finals is a great feat.
Skipper Knowledge Musona’s free-kick was punched into the path of debutant Perfect Chikwende, who reacted quickly to head the only goal of the match.
Musona deservedly earned legendary status for leading the Warriors to the continental showpiece.
Zimbabwe will be heading for their fifth Afcon finals, having made their maiden appearance at the continental meet in Tunisia (2004), followed by Tunisia (2006) and returning after a lengthy absence in Gabon in 2017. They were also in Egypt in 2019.
Veteran Sunday Chidzambwa was in charge of the Warriors twice when they qualified in 2004 and 2019, while Charles Mhlauri was in charge in 2006 and Kalisto Pasuwa in 2017.
While celebrating Zdravko Logarusic’s success of becoming the first foreign national to lead the country to Afcon, spare a thought for Joey Antipas, who was in charge of the first two Group H Warriors games.
Antipas laid a firm groundwork for the Afcon 2021 campaign, contributing four out of the eight points that saw Zimbabwe qualifying with ease for the continental showpiece.
In November 2019, Zimbabwe under Antipas started off sluggishly with a disappointing 0-0 home draw against Botswana, but quickly picked up in the second match when they beat Zambia 2-1 in Lusaka courtesy of a Khama Billiat double.
Antipas’ knack for straight talk might be the reason he was replaced by Loga for the Warriors’ job, as the Chicken Inn gaffer had expressed his displeasure at the shambolic preparations by Zifa for the Botswana tie.
Antipas wasn’t amused that in the build-up to the Botswana tie, he only had a day with the players and they went on to struggle for a point against the Zebras, who many had considered minnows taking into account the vast talent at the Warriors’ disposal.
After the disappointing show against Botswana, Antipas had three days to get his side ready for Zambia, and they shocked Chipolopolo in their own backyard, which was the turning point for the Warriors.
Antipas yesterday congratulated the Warriors and their technical team for qualifying, saying Zimbabwe deserved a ticket to the 2021 Afcon finals.
“Surely it feels good to see the lads qualifying for the Afcon finals with a game to spare. I truly congratulate the players and the technical team for the job well done. I believe we deserve this ticket because it wasn’t an easy group. I’ll say the game against Zambia which we won away and the home draw against Algeria were crucial in this campaign,” said Antipas.
“You know we didn’t get a good start in the campaign as the draw against Botswana had a lot to do with ill-preparations. Players got into camp the day before and we didn’t have much time to prepare with squad. That Botswana performance wasn’t up to scratch, but the point we got was valuable.
“In the second game we did well, the boys were fired up and playing continental giants Algeria was always going to be difficult, but the technical team read the return leg well and got us that massive draw. I can only say kudos to the technical team and the boys,” he said.
Never shy to express his views, Antipas warned Zifa against sinking in celebrations and instead start preparing for the finals.
The two-time local championship winning gaffer with Motor Action and Chicken Inn believes the Warriors are capable of going past the group stages if Zifa don’t jinx their participation with poor preparations.
“Right now what we need is for the players to be in camp on time, not a situation where the squad meets on the eve of travelling.
Preparations must be flawless and planed earlier like we saw when they went to Botswana for this match. The other thing that Zifa has to resolve is monetary issues. Once the players are at the finals, they have to concentrate on playing and not to be involved in lengthy meetings negotiating for their dues. All that must be sorted before departure and if the players’ minds are focused on the games, then we can get the best out of them and make it beyond the first round,” Antipas said. – @ZililoR