Warriors hunt antelopes
The spacious 60 000 seater National Sports Stadium here is the setting for the biggest football match so far in the 10th edition of the continent’s showcase regional football tournament.
It is a classic rematch for the two teams who met at the same stage of the same tournament last on neutral soil in Mafikeng, South Africa, and produced three goals as a makeshift Warriors team beat the Black Antelopes 2-1 to book their ticket in the final.
Fielding a team picked exclusively from players plying their trade in the local Premiership, the Warriors were largely expected to be easy prey for the Antelopes on their way to their maiden World Cup finals.
Angola were full of confidence ‘ the heroes of a nation still celebrating their milestone achievement in beating continental heavyweights Nigeria for a place at the World Cup finals in Germany.
Coach Luis Oliviera Gonclaves brought the majority of the players he was taking to Germany as he used the Cosafa Castle Cup as part of his team’s preparations for their World Cup adventure.
But in a tight game in which the gallant Warriors refused to be intimidated by the rising profile of their opponents, Zimbabwe beat Angola with goals from attacking midfielder Francis Chandida and striker Sageby Sandaka.
Sandaka’s winner, fired home from a distance on the half volley, was worthy the prize of taking the Warriors into the final while Angola had a goal from Lama Love to show for their part in a fine game.
That game was the fifth ‘ in the Cosafa Castle Cup ‘ between the two regional heavyweights and left them sharing the spoils.
The two nations have each won two games in their head-to-head contests while one game ‘ the first leg of the final in the 2001 edition of the final ‘ is the only one that ended in a draw.
Zimbabwe and Angola first met in the Cosafa Castle Cup on August 30 1998, during the mini-league phase of the tournament, and the Black Antelopes won the game 2-1 in Luanda.
Goals by Ferreira in the 36th minute and Amara in the 59th minute gave Angola victory while Zimbabwe’ goal came from Tauya Murewa.
That defeat ensured that Zimbabwe lost the battle for top place in the mini-league and Zambia, with eight points after four games, won the group and the competition.
The next meeting between Angola and Zimbabwe came in 2001 during the two-legged final and the Warriors were favoured to win the tournament after holding their opponents to a goalless draw in Luanda.
Rock-solid defender James Matola, who has now joined South African side SuperSport United and who captained the Warriors to victory in the Cosafa Castle Cup last year, was voted man-of-the-match in that game.
But the Angolans, who have always had an ace up their sleeve whenever it comes to tough decisive away matches, stunned a huge crowd at the National Sports Stadium in the return leg of the final on September 30 that year.
With the game meandering to a close and the scores still goalless, the Black Antelopes found goal poacher Flavio in a good position and the striker finished with aplomb ‘ with just three minutes remaining on the clock ‘ to give his side victory.
Two years later the two sides met in the first round of the Cosafa Castle Cup and veteran forward Adam Ndlovu ‘ who has since retired from international football ‘ fired the Warriors to victory with a goal in the 20th minute in Harare.
Last year Zimbabwe once again beat Angola ‘ this time on the neutral soil of South Africa ‘ as they won the Cosafa Castle Cup.
Now the Angolans are back in Harare ‘ where they also lost a Nations Cup/World Cup qualifier against the Warriors recently ‘ hoping to stop the momentum that has been picked by their rivals in their last head-to-head clashes.
Both teams have invested in new players who were not part of the cast the last time they met as they try to infuse new blood with attention clearly focussed on the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa.
Angola will also host the Nations Cup finals in the same year as this region ‘ for long starved of such football festivals ‘ plays host to both the continent and the world within a short space of time.
The euphoria that greeted Angola’s qualification for the 2006 World Cup finals ‘ with the entire country being drowned in parties ‘ has died down and the country has woken up from the hangover.
Captain Fabrice “Akwa” Maieco ‘ for long the face of Angolan football and the hero of their campaign to reach the World Cup finals ‘ is slowly being phased out of the picture as the country looks to the future.
Just six of the players from the World Cup party are in the Angola squad for the showdown against the Warriors this weekend.
Of the squad that is currently in Harare only defenders Jamba and Loco played all three matches during the World Cup finals in Germany.
There are five uncapped players in the team ‘ Alberto, Enoque, Nandinho, Nuna and Vado.
The Angolans have already played a match since their World Cup adventure ‘ beating Swaziland 2-0 in a 2008 Nations Cup qualifier recently.
But the Warriors have gathered a lot of rust with their last competitive match coming eight months ago when they sensationally beat Ghana 2-1 in the Egyptian city of Ismailia in a Nations Cup qualifier.
Midfielder Cephas Chimedza and striker Benjani Mwaruwari scored for the Warriors in a game in which they came very close to booking a place in the quarter-final.
Benjani ‘ who is now at English Premiership side Portsmouth ‘ was introduced to the world in a Cosafa Castle Cup final tie against Lesotho at Barbourfields Stadium in Bulawayo in 2000.
The hard-running forward, who would go on to be named the South African Player of the Year before making big money moves to France and England, scored the Warriors’ third goal in a 3-0 victory over Lesotho.
Having won the first leg by the same scoreline, the Warriors completed a comprehensive 6-0 aggregate victory to win the tournament.
Then the Warriors were still able to call upon their foreign-based players for the tournament and they clearly were a shade better than most of the teams in the equation.
However, since last year the Warriors have been relying exclusively on locally-based players for the Cosafa Castle Cup and their victory in South Africa ‘ built on such players ‘ has given them the confidence to keep this policy alive.
Coach Charles Mhlauri, whose popularity was boosted by that victory in South Africa, had originally wanted to include some foreign-based players in this game because of the need for practice time ahead of the Warriors’ Nations Cup assignment in Malawi.
But all doors were shut when the foreign clubs refused to release their players leaving the Warriors with a group of players from the domestic Premiership.
There are a number of old warhorses in the squad, including midfielder Ronald Sibanda, who was initially left out of the squad on disciplinary grounds but was only recalled last week.
Matches between Angola and Zimbabwe have always been a close affair and this one should not be any different.
The game also presents the Warriors fans, who have emerged in recent years as the group that supports its national team better than just about everyone else on the continent, with a chance to watch their team in action at home for the first time in 16 months.
The last time the Warriors played a home match was in the World Cup/Nations Cup qualifier against Rwanda in June last year.
A massive home crowd watched as the Warriors secured their place at the Nations Cup finals in Egypt with a convincing 3-0 victory.
Now they return to the National Sports Stadium ‘ their Theatre of Dreams ‘ hoping for another success story in their team’s battle for glory in the jungles of international football.