HE was the first man to lead Zimbabwe to the Africa Cup of Nations after a 24-year wait which seemed like eternity in 2004.
That Sunday “Mhofu” Chidzambwa, his troops and the whole nation had to wait for a hell four or so hours for confirmation didn’t matter much at the end of the day as Zimbabwe erupted into wild celebrations which spilled to the countryside after their team finally sealed a spot at the biannual tournament.
Zimbabweans had become accustomed to the frustrating so-near-yet-so-far discourse as oftentimes the Warriors had come agonisingly closer to qualify for the ultimate football tournament in the continent only to stumble at the very last hurdle.
In 1993, needing victory with a two-goal margin at home to neighbours Zambia, Zimbabwe could neither hold on nor stretch their single goal’s advantage scored early in the match by the talismanic Agent Sawu as Kalusha Bwalya at the opposite end broke the hosts’ hearts with a howitzer header seven minutes from time to ensure a share of spoils as grief-stricken Chipolopolo, fresh from that air crash disaster that wiped out their entire senior team, qualified at the expense of the Warriors.
But that was before Congo Brazzaville had inflicted the severest of injuries on Zimbabwe’s cause two years earlier after the Central Africans, in search of a draw themselves, managed to restrict the home side to a 2-2 stalemate and somewhat snatched the ticket from Zimbabwe’s grasp.
Chidzambwa had since hung his playing boots following a nasty injury in 1983 while turning out for the country’s giants, Dynamos, but he was at the stadium and was so confident that he even opted to leave the venue before the final whistle with Zimbabwe leading the contest 2-1 in the final minutes of that contest.
The veteran gaffer apparently got out of the stadium in fear of a stampede as he foresaw fans celebrating uncontrollably after the final whistle.
But, he was shocked as word filtered before he couldn’t even take a lift back home that Zimbabwe’s opponents had somehow found their footing and equalised to dent the team’s hopes of a maiden appearance at AFCON.
“It was painful, I tell you. No one could explain what had really happened but as a football person, I understood the situation. After all that’s how cruel the game can be,” said Chidzambwa.
The country would wait for 13 more years before Chidzambwa stepped in to shepherd the Warriors to the Promised Land.
Zimbabwe have been to the AFCON finals for two more times in 2006 and 2017.
They stand on the threshold of booking a fourth berth at the tournament but they will have to at least avoid defeat at home to a side which brings bitter memories, Congo Brazzaville.
Congo will be spurred by that history but the man in charge of the Warriors this time around is also chasing his own record as he could become the first mentor to guide Zimbabwe to two AFCON appearances.
The two teams clash at the National Sports Stadium on March 24 in a match the home team should just avoid dropping all the points to be ensured a place at the now 24-team tournament to be held in Egypt in June.
It’s not only Zimbabwe who will be chasing a place in Egypt on that weekend from this part of the continent as there is also renewed hope sweeping across the region that with the increase in the number of participants from 16 to 24, Cosafa could as well constitute a third lot of participants in the championship.
But, that much also depends on whether the teams manage to grind favourable results in the final round of the qualifying fixtures to be played next month.
Madagascar have already made the roster for their first ever AFCON appearance and could be joined by seven other teams from Cosafa in what would be a landmark achievement for the region.
The most successful team in the tournament from Southern Africa, Zambia along with Swaziland, Botswana, Malawi and the Seychelles are the only teams already out of contention for a place in Egypt.
The rest still have their destiny firmly in their own control and if they play their cards well, they will make it to the tournament scheduled to run from June 21 to July 19.
Comoros though, faces a daunting task to negotiate a way for their maiden show at the AFCON as they need an outright win away to Cameroon to secure their passage.
Lesotho, Mozambique and Angola also need to win their final group matches and need not wait for other results to go their way to guarantee their participation in the meet.
Namibia and South Africa just like Zimbabwe, just have to avoid defeats in their respective matches to ensure progress.
Bafana Bafana will be away to Lybia and anything less than a draw will all but end their hopes of a dance in Egypt. Namibia on the other hand will be out to bag the maximum points against Zambia in a match to be hosted by the latter.
Cosafa president Philip Chiyangwa is on record saying it is only by having more teams from the region at the AFCON that Southern Africa becomes more recognisable on the continental stage.