Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor—
IT took just an hour-and-half for the Warriors to charm the British media, with a 2017 Nations Cup performance pregnant with both quality and the promise of a successful campaign and, refreshingly, force a change to the usually negative and toxic portrayal of Zimbabwe.
Callisto Pasuwa and his courageous troops, who are all making their maiden AFCON dance, stunned the world by taking on the highly-fancied Algerians toe-to-toe in a Group B thriller in Franceville, and provided suggestion the Warriors were not in Gabon just to make up the numbers.
Zimbabwe rattled the post once in the first half, in what would have been an early contender for the Goal of the Tournament, with the exciting Khama Billiat being denied by a world-class save by an inspired Algerian ‘keeper Rais M’Bholi before the two foes collided again as they featured in the stand-out magical moment of the second period.
Having danced and tricked his way into the box, with his artistry making a mockery of both the difference in built between the diminutive Billiat and his imposing Algerian markers, and numbers as he single-handedly took on three defenders, the Zimbabwean forward created a pocket of space for himself and fired at the exposed ‘keeper.
But, for the second time that evening, M’Bholi was equal to the task, somehow spreading his left hand just in time to make the required contact and turn the ball away for a corner with a top-drawer save.
Having trailed to a Riyad Mahrez beauty, the Warriors refused to be buried by the setback and not even the early loss of the influential Knowledge Musona could derail them as they stormed back to take the lead which they held on to until the final eight minutes of regulation time when the Leicester City talisman fired home the equaliser for the Desert Foxes.
It could have been a totally different story had substitute Cuthbert Malajila converted a golden chance, after having forced a turnover of possession, but he shot weakly at the ‘keeper while an assist to Kuda Mahachi, alone in acres of space on the other side with an open goal at his mercy, would have been a better option.
And, the Warriors’ spirited show has caught the attention of the international media, including the British who, for a refreshing change, found time and space to write something positive about Zimbabwe where the dominant storyline has always been a regular dosage of negativity about the country.
“As Riyad Mahrez curled the ball home in the 13th minute, you could be forgiven for thinking Algeria, tipped as possible favourites for the tournament, would stroll to victory,” John Singer, writing for British newspaper The Daily Mail’s online edition, Mailonline, reported.
“But that would be to reckon without the Warrior spirit.
“Zimbabwe came to AFCON as rank outsiders, but on Sunday night they announced themselves as a team not to be underestimated, denied a win only by Mahrez’s second of the night.
“They rode their luck at times, but they also earned it. And in the end, against a star-studded Algeria side, a team with only a handful of players based outside southern Africa were unlucky only to get one point.
“That first goal should have been enough to settle Algeria, a side that can be prone to emotional instability but possesses as much quality as any on the continent. Zimbabwe had already lost their main attacking threat, Knowledge Musona, to an early injury, and ought to have been rattled, appearing on this stage for the first time since 2006.
“But, instead, the underdogs produced a scintillating 20 minutes of attacking football to turn the game on its head. It was a harsh ending to a game that Zimbabwe should have wrapped up but that they were even slightly disappointed demonstrates how far above expectations the Warriors have already risen.”
Aaron Flanagan, writing for the tabloid Daily Mirror, said Mahrez “saved Algeria’s blushes,” after the Desert Foxes “were left stunned by a spectacular first-half display from Zimbabwe.”
George Boulton, writing for Britain’s biggest selling newspaper, The Sun, said Mahrez’s brace saved his “nation from an embarrassing result,” while his colleague, Richard Forrester, writing in the same paper, singled out Billiat as the main player for the Warriors and described coach Callisto Pasuwa as “highly regarded amongst the players and staff at the team.”
The BBC said ‘keeper Tatenda Mukuruva “should have saved” Mahrez’s effort for the equaliser and noted that “while Mukuruva may feel embarrassed at his error, Algeria just about managed to save their own blushes as they rescued a point from their Group B opener — a match they were very much expected to win.
“Zimbabwe, making their first appearance at the finals since 2006, will perhaps count themselves a little bit unlucky after playing some excellent football.
“Khama Billiat was superb for the Warriors (who) will take heart from their performance. Billiat was on top form and will cause any defence problems.”
Paul Gittings, writing on the CNN website, noted the underdogs were flexing their muscles in Gabon.
“Two days in and the Africa Cup of Nations is rapidly becoming the tournament for the underdog. Few gave Zimbabwe much hope of even avoiding defeat to one of the favourites Algeria, but the Warriors came within eight minutes of an upset victory in the Group B opener in Franceville,” he wrote.
“But the warning signs were already there for Algeria, with Khama Billiat having rattled its woodwork with a stunning volley from outside the penalty area.
“The brilliant Billiat might have made it three after tricking his way through the Algeria defence early in the second half, but M’Bohli made the best of a series of superb saves.
“It was certainly entertaining fare.”
Nadeem Badshah, writing for Eurosport, said “the Warriors, ranked 103 in the world, dominated the rest of the half (after Mahrez opener),” and said the talking point was whether the Zimbabweans got their tactics wrong in the second half.
“Callisto Pasuwa’s side were brilliant in the first period with their swift counter attacking and high tempo game. But they switched to a defensive style after the break to try and hold onto their lead which, ultimately, cost them a shock victory,” noted Badshah, who gave the man-of-the-match award to ‘keeper M’Bolhi for keeping “his side in the game with a string of world class saves.
“He denied the brilliant Billiat in both halves with three wonderful stops, including clawing the ball around the post to keep out a goal-bound effort.”