THE Zimbabwe Warriors start their defence of the COSAFA Cup in Polokwane tomorrow, carrying the burden of a country that wants them to succeed again in a tournament where we have turned ourselves into the dominant force. Last year, in Rustenburg, South Africa, our Warriors won a record-breaking fifth COSAFA Cup after an impressive campaign in which they started from the group stage qualifiers, and ended up thrashing rivals Zambia 3-1 in the final.
It was a refreshing return to success for the Warriors, after years of underachievement in the tournament, which saw us being relegated to the qualifiers where lightweights in the region begin their campaign before the heavyweight teams join the fray in the quarter-finals.
The Warriors had last won the tournament on home soil, ironically after another 3-1 win over Zambia in the final, in 2009, in a tourney that opened the doors for a number of players like Method Mwanjali, Nyasha Mushekwi and Cuthbert Malajila to join foreign clubs.
Last year’s successful adventure also saw one of our stars of that campaign, Talent Chawapiwa, being snapped by South African Premiership side Baroka, where he has exploded and attracted the interests of some of that country’s biggest football clubs.
Former Warriors coach Norman Mapeza, who last year guided FC Platinum to an historic triumph in the domestic Premiership league championship race, has already told the players who will be representing the country at this COSAFA Cup that they can use it as a platform to show potential suitors from around the world that they are good enough to play for their clubs.
Coach Sunday Chidzambwa had wanted most of our star players, who regularly feature for the national team when we play in the AFCON and World Cup qualifiers, to feature at this COSAFA Cup because he wanted to use the tournament as a blending platform for his men ahead of tougher Nations Cup assignments coming in September.
Unfortunately, injuries have ruled out a number of them, including skipper Knowledge Musona, whose new club Anderlecht of Belgium, believe he deserves to be given time away from the game so that he completes a rehabilitation programme that should see him start the new European season fully fit.
Chidzambwa knows the true value of Musona, who has proved to be our talisman in the past seven years, to the Warriors and the coach would certainly want to see his captain in peak physical condition for the resumption of the AFCON qualifiers in September.
Given a choice to either risk his captain at this COSAFA Cup and possibly aggravate the injury that has stalked him, and then possibly lose the chance of fielding him in the AFCON qualifiers in September, we are certain the coach would have chosen to rest the skipper.
Musona is not the only one whom Chidzambwa wanted for the COSAFA Cup who will be missing because of injury.
Highly-rated midfielder Marvelous Nakamba, who won the Belgian championship with Club Brugge in the just-ended season to get a ticket to play in the UEFA Champions League next season, has also been ruled out as he is nursing an injury.
Veteran defender Costa Nhamoinesu, who provided the rock at the back on which the Warriors built their successful campaign for a place at the 2017 AFCON finals in Gabon, has been recalled by his Czech club Sparta Prague because medical reports show he needs urgent attention from the team’s doctors to help him fully recover from injury.
Midfielder Kuda Mahachi is the other player who is unavailable for national duty at this COSAFA Cup because of the injury curse.
But that should not cripple our capacity to defend our crown because Chidzambwa has called a fairly strong side with Khama Billiat back in national team colours for the first time in about one-and-half years.
The absence of the star players should open the window for some of the players to show the coach that they are not just there for such tournaments like the COSAFA Cup, but can be trusted to deliver for the nation when it comes to the AFCON and World Cup qualifiers.
It’s a great opportunity for them to show their value to the team and they have to grab it with both hands and ensure they play at a level that will convince the coach that they have the quality that can be trusted to represent the country with distinction in the tougher battles to come.
Big defender Jimmy Dzingai has been knocking on the door for some time now and Nhamoinesu’s absence probably gives him the chance to show that he can play at this higher level and force his way into the thoughts of the coach when focus shifts towards the AFCON qualifiers.
Striker Tino Kadewere is coming from a great season in Sweden, where he leads the race for the Golden Boot in that country’s top-flight league, and Musona’s absence probably gives him a chance to prove to the coach that he has now come of age to play regularly for the Warriors.
Alec Mudimu, the 22-year-old midfielder who plays for Welsh side Cefn Druids, is another player whose Warriors journey is starting and Chidzambwa rates him highly and this COSAFA Cup also provides him with the chance to prove he can play for this team on a regular basis.
There is so much at stake for these Warriors in South Africa and, hopefully, when the old lady sings to signal the end of the final of the tournament, it is our captain who will be lifting the silverware once again.