Brave Warriors success adds another chapter to CHAN Cinderella tales
By Robson Sharuko
HARARE – The African Nations Championship has been derided in certain circles as a poor cousin of the African Cup of Nations but, for producing Cinderella tales, this football tournament has delivered on many fronts since its inception nine years ago.
Three years ago, in South Africa, Libya – whose rights to host the tournament were withdrawn because of the civil strife in the North African country – arrived in South Africa as one of the lightweights at the finals.
But, for all their challenges back home where militias now ruled the country, the Libyans shocked the continent by winning the tournament after defeating Ghana in a penalty shootout in Cape Town in February 2014.
The match had ended goalless, for the third straight game in the knockout phase for the Libyans, and the Mediterranean Knights, who had converted themselves into penalty shootout specialists, managed to beat the Black Stars 5-4 to be crowned champions.
The Libyans didn’t win a match in the knockout phase as they drew against Gabon in the quarter-finals before winning the battle 4-2 in the penalty shootout lottery and holding Zimbabwe to a goalless draw in the semi-finals before winning 5-4 in the lottery.
In their six matches in South Africa, the Libyans only won one game in regulation time, their group opener against Ethiopia (2-0), before two draws against Ghana (1-1) and Congo-Brazzaville (2-2) but they still emerged as the winners of the tournament.
That a country which was reeling from civil strife could even go that far in the tournament, let alone going all the way to win it, cheered the hearts of millions of neutral football fans and gave Libya some measure of revenge.
For in the 1982 AFCON final in Tripoli, the Black Stars shattered the dreams of millions of Libyans after beating the Mediterranean Knights, in their backyard, 7-6 on penalties.
If Libya’s success in South Africa three years ago was a Cinderella tale, then add another one – the Brave Warriors of Namibia’s incredible journey to defy insurmountable odds, including a domestic top-flight league that has been in limbo, to qualify for their first CHAN finals in Kenya next year.
Given the challenges Namibian football has been facing of late, the Brave Warriors were not one of the favoured teams to qualify for the 2018 CHAN finals.
After all, they had never been there before and, in their path, lay a powerful Zimbabwean side that had qualified for every edition of the CHAN finals in the history of the tournament and reached the semi-finals in South Africa three years ago.
With the Warriors having won the 2017 COSAFA Castle Cup in style, after destroying Zambia 3-0 in the final, and CAPS United having reached the group stages of the CAF Champions League, all the good money was on Zimbabwe reaching the 2018 CHAN finals in Kenya.
But Namibia made a mockery of the form book and defeated the Warriors 1-0 in Windhoek before losing by the same score line in Harare only for them to triumph in the penalty shootout lottery.
That success landed them an assignment against the Comoros in a battle for a place at the CHAN finals, with both countries with a chance to make history should they triumph, and the Namibians lost the first leg 1-2 on the Indian Ocean Island.
Then, on Sunday, they defeated their opponents – who were accepted as the latest member of the Southern Africa Development Community last weekend – 2-0 in Windhoek to qualify for the Kenyan extravaganza and also write probably the greatest success story in the history of this tournament.
Substitute Muna Katupose was the toast of that victory on Sunday, rising from the bench to score twice with headers at the Sam Nujoma Stadium in Windhoek, as the Namibians completed the turnaround and booked their ticket to Kenya.
Katupose cemented his legendary status as he also scored the winner in Ethiopia when Namibia qualified for their last major tournament, the 2008 Nations Cup finals.
He revealed, in comments carried on the official Namibia Football Association website, he told his teammates at half-time, when the score line was still goalless and in favour of the Indian Ocean islanders, to relax because he would take them home.
He had just been told by coach Ricardo Mannetti that he was about to be thrown into the fray as the Brave Warriors tried to find a way to break the stubborn islanders.
“As I stood there to come on, I was looking around and my adrenaline got going up and up and I was pumped up so ideally,’’ Katupose said in comments carried on the official NFA website.
“Just the way I wanted it to be. I knew where to be and when the ball came I went for it and I didn’t know which side to run to but I ended up somewhere.
“What matters is that I scored and have now scored in two separate qualification final games and that record will stand for me for a long time. I feel honoured.’’
While Namibia is basking in the glow of their success, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo – the two SADC countries who had never missed the CHAN finals before – will now have to watch from a distance when the tournament gets underway in Kenya.
The DRC, who won the inaugural tournament in Cote d’Ivoire and lost in the quarter-finals in 2011 to Tunisia, crashed out at the same stage to the Ghanaians in 2012 and thrashed Mali 3-0 to win the tourney for the second time last year in Rwanda, crashed out of the qualifiers after losing to neighbours Congo-Brazzaville on goal difference.
The Congolese appeared to have gained an advantage when they held their neighbours to a goalless draw in the first leg but a 1-1 draw in Kinshasa gave Congo-Brazzaville a place in Kenya next year.
The two countries are also in the same qualifying group for the 2019 AFCON finals, which also features Zimbabwe. Angola and Zambia are the other SADC countries which booked their places in Kenya next year but, clearly, the biggest story was written by the Namibians in a competition that has always delivered fairytales.