Once again, Ebola lies in the path of the Warriors’ AFCON adventure

By Robson Sharuko

HARARE    Zimbabwe’s Warriors must be wondering why Ebola usually features in their path to try and qualify for the African Cup of Nations finals after the World Health Organisation reported another outbreak of the deadly virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo last week.

The Warriors became the second national football team to play in Guinea last year – six months after the Flames of Malawi became the first side to visit Conakry – following a decision by the Confederation of African Football to suspend international matches from being hosted in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia in August 2014.

The Ebola outbreak in the three countries claimed more than 11,000 people with Liberia being the worst-hit nation with around 4,810 deaths while there were about 3,956 deaths in Sierra Leone.

CAF’s decision meant the three countries were forced to play their international football matches on neutral soil with Guinea, who were in the same group as Zimbabwe, Malawi and Swaziland in the 2017 Nations Cup qualifiers, hosting their games in Casablanca, Morocco.

Ironically, Morocco pulled out of hosting the 2015 AFCON finals because of fears some West African players and fans could bring the Ebola virus to their doorstep which would have had serious repercussions for a country that relies on its tourism receipts.

Morocco was fined $1 million by CAF and banned from two AFCON tournaments, a ban which was later lifted, while the continent’s football governing body said it would also claim about $9 million in compensation from the Moroccans.

Swaziland, whose first 2017 AFCON qualifier was away against Guinea, had to play that game in Casablanca, Morocco, with Sihlangu taking full advantage of that to post a shock 2-1 win over their highly-rated opponents.

But, by the time Malawi’s turn for an away match against Guinea arrived in March last year, authorities ruled that the Ebola outbreak had been contained and the Flames were sent to Conakry to play their match there, holding their own to come out with a goalless draw.

Six months later, it was Zimbabwe’s turn and with the Warriors having already secured their ticket to Gabon in the penultimate round of fixtures, the then coach Callisto Pasuwa rested some of his regulars, including Mamelodi Sundowns’ star Khama Billiat, with his team going down 0-1 in Conakry.

That result was only academic as Zimbabwe won that group with a comfortable three-point cushion to return to the Nations Cup finals for the first time in 11 years.

But, no sooner had the Warriors dealt with a country that was still reeling from the effects of an outbreak of the Ebola virus, in an AFCON qualifying campaign, were they handed another possible confrontation with another one when news broke through last week that there had been another Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Zimbabwe were paired against the Congolese, in the battle for the 2019 Nations Cup finals, in a group that also features Congo-Brazzaville and, incredibly, a Liberian nation still battling to heal the scars of the recent Ebola                    outbreak.

And, as fate might have it, the Warriors’ first match, in the battle for a place at the 2019 AFCON finals in Cameroon, is a home date against Liberia in Harare next month.

The Zimbabweans will then meet the DRC, in back-to-back matches inside three days, in September next year with the first match set for the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, before the two sides battle again in Harare.

However, the Kinshasa match will depend, to a large extent, on how the Congolese and international medical authorities contain the latest outbreak of the Ebola virus which was first reported in the north eastern part of the country and which the WHO says had already killed three people by last weekend.

“An international team led by the (DRC) Ministry of Health and supported by WHO and partners has deployed and is expected to reach the affected areas in the coming days,” WHO’s executive director for emergencies, Peter Salama, said in a statement.

And DRC authorities said the country needed to battle to stop the spread of the virus.

“Our country must confront an outbreak of the Ebola virus that constitutes a public health crisis of international significance,’’ the country’s health ministry said.

Zimbabwean football fans still have bitter memories of their team’s 1996 Nations Cup qualifying campaign which was destroyed by the outbreak of the Ebola virus in the DRC.

That Warriors’ side appeared set to end the country’s wait for a place at the Nations Cup finals after defeating the DRC 2-1 in Harare with the Ndlovu brothers – Peter and Adam – on target for Zimbabwe.

And, a few months later, that team illustrated its pedigree with a 4-0 mauling of African giants Cameroon in Harare with Vitalis Takawira scoring a hattrick while the late Paul Gundani scored the other goal.

But the Ebola outbreak in the DRC changed everything.

The team’s Europe-based stars like Peter and Adam Ndlovu, Agent Sawu, goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar and midfielder Benjamin Nkonjera could not take the risk of flying to Kinshasa after a number of European countries started barring those who had travelled to the DRC from entering their borders for fear of bringing the virus to their doorstep.

With CAF insisting the match should go ahead in Kinshasa, as scheduled, the Warriors were forced to send a makeshift side made up of local players who crashed to a 0-5 thrashing at the hands of the DRC on June 4,               1995.

That loss meant Zimbabwe finished just two points behind the DRC and Cameroon, who qualified as the winners and runners-up and, in an era where a win fetched two points, that loss in Kinshasa proved decisive.

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