From Bouake to Sun City – The enduring football love affair illuminating the COSAFA Castle Cup

By Robson Sharuko

HARARE – A football love affair that started in a city that used to be a fortress of rebellion during an Ivorian civil war which exploded at the turn of the millennium, has been revived eight years later, on the edges of Africa’s premier gambling resort to illuminate the 2017 COSAFA Castle Cup.

When Sunday Chidzambwa, the most successful Zimbabwean football coach in history, unleashed Ovidy Karuru at the inaugural African Nations Championships (CHAN) finals in Cote d’Ivoire’s second city, Bouake, in 2009, the midfielder was then a small built footballer just a month after his teenage adventure.

But it took just five minutes for Karuru to justify his inclusion, firing the Warriors into the lead in their first CHAN finals Group B game against eventual losing finalists Ghana at the Stade Bouake in a match that eventually finished in a 2-2 draw after the West Africans rallied from a two-goal deficit.

And, in 2009 the Confederation of African Football (CAF) leaders rode on that wave and brought Group B of the CHAN finals to Bouake a city that still bear the scars from the rebellion pitted rebels in the north against the government in the capital Abidjan, south of the country.

Though the worst of the war was over, the huge presence of military personnel on the streets provided a reminder of a time when things were very bad.

It was in that environment where a 20-year-old Zimbabwean footballer, Karuru, was handed his chance to shine for his national team by Chidzambwa and responded brilliantly with superb performances in the drawn matches against Ghana and eventual champions Democratic Republic of the Congo.

When Chidzambwa named Karuru as his captain for the 2017 COSAFA Castle Cup, his decision raised eyebrows back home with some questioning whether the midfielder, now 28 years old, still had the touch needed not only to play in the team but provide leadership for the team.

Along the way, Karuru’s career appeared to have hit a rough patch, off-loaded by Kaizer Chiefs without being given a chance to make an impression, only to re-emerge in South Africa’s Division One with Amazulu. But Chidzambwa knew his man and trusted his instincts.

Five goals in three qualifying matches at the 2017 COSAFA Castle Cup, including a hat-trick in a 6-0 demolition of Seychelles, propelled the Warriors into the knockout stages for a quarter-final date against a plucky Swaziland.

And when Karuru struck against the Swazis to push his team into the lead, in a game they eventually won 2-1, he had broken the record of the most goals scored by an individual at a single COSAFA Castle Cup in the competition’s history.

“Karuru is a very talented player who is able to play in so many positions. We can use him as a wide midfielder, behind the strikers or even as a striker because he is also very good in front of goal,” Chidzambwa explained.

Karuru knows the importance of such tournaments.

“It’s a good competition (the COSAFA Castle Cup), especially for the youngsters, because this team is full of guys who are coming up,’’ he said.

“I think they should take it seriously, maybe they will get contracts outside the country.

“I encourage them to focus on the tournament and give it their best. You never know who is watching.’’

Eight years ago, deep in central Cote d’Ivoire, Karuru didn’t know who was watching as he shone brightly as a 20-year-old for his country, and his coach, at the 2009 CHAN finals.

Of course, someone was watching and Karuru – who had trials with English giants Newcastle United the previous year – was signed by French side Boulogne just after the CHAN finals and he stayed there for three years.

He made 73 appearances for the club and scored 10 goals.

He left in 2012 and joined another French club OH Leuven before resurfacing at Kaizer Chiefs where the move never worked for him.

But, after the reunion with the coach who gave him his breakthrough and a brilliant show at the COSAFA Castle Cup, it’s certain that now – just like back then – the scouts have been watching and there will be a number of suitors

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