Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor
SAME coach, same opponents and the same group opener — the Warriors’ grand opening 2019 AFCON match on June 21 will be a nostalgic journey, back into a time, when they made their first baby steps in the finals of this tournament.
Egypt versus Zimbabwe at the Nations Cup finals.
A very familiar tale for the Warriors, very familiar opponents for their coach Sunday Chidzambwa at this continental football festival.
Where the Tunisian Mediterranean coastal city of S’fax provided the setting, 15 years ago, for that initial showdown, the bustling Egyptian capital of Cairo will this time provide the stage for the next confrontation in two months’ time.
With a population of about 12 million people, and about 21 million people living in its metropolitan area, Cairo is an imposing city — the biggest in Africa and the Middle East — and not a place for the faint-hearted when you go there to take on the Pharaohs.
The opening match between Zimbabwe and Egypt will also be a special occasion for the hosts who will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the first time an AFCON finals match was played in their country on May 22, 1959 at Prince Farouk Stadium in Cairo.
Mahmoud El-Gohary scored a superb hat-trick in that match to lead the hosts, at a time when the country was known as the United Arab Republic — a political union between Egypt and Syria — to a 4-0 thrashing of Ethiopia.
The Pharaohs went on to win that tournament, just like they did when they last hosted this showcase 13 years ago, and they will be hoping for another happy ending when the festival rolls into its ceremonial home country for the fifth time.
Two years before Egypt last hosted the AFCON finals, the Warriors had announced their arrival on the big stage with a date against the Pharaohs in Tunisia, in an explosive battle in which Peter Ndlovu and his troops showed they had, indeed, come of age.
The Flying Elephant, ever an exemplary commander who led from the front, powered home his country’s first goal at this level of the game but the Pharaohs struck twice, including a contentious goal, to win the match 2-1.
However, the enduring narrative, from a Zimbabwean perspective, would be generated by events that unfolded in the dying stages of that contest.
With time running out, the Warriors poured forward in search of an equaliser their industry would have merited and, when they fashioned one great chance, it fell to Wilfred Mugeyi.
The Silver Fox had succeeded King Peter as the Soccer Star of the Year a dozen years earlier, in his swansong season in the domestic Premiership, before his predatory instincts and physical presence upfront, combined to take him to South Africa. But, where Peter had succeeded in converting his chance, Mugeyi’s composure betrayed him and, lost in a haze of excitement, he got his physical alignment wrong.
And the product he delivered was one that would defy the passage of time, in terms of its appeal as a favourite subject of debate every time the AFCON comes around, and in the next two months it will be a huge part of the narrative.
Mugeyi had come in as a 55th minute replacement of Agent Sawu, the man who had also succeeded him as Soccer Star of the Year in 1993.
Both the Pharaohs and the Warriors were eliminated in the group stages at that 2004 AFCON finals but the Egyptians made up for that with success in home soil two years later.
They also chose the Warriors as their last sparring partners ahead of the start of the tournament with the Pharaohs powering to a routine 2-0 win in a friendly in Cairo on January 1, 2006.
That friendly match showed how relations between the two teams had improved after the ugly fallout triggered by wild events during a ‘94 World Cup qualifiers in Cairo in 1993.
The Egyptians won that ill-tempered game 2-1 but, with both goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar and coach Reinhard Fabisch suffering head injuries after being hit by missiles thrown by the crowd, FIFA were forced to nullify the result.
A replay on neutral soil in the French city of Lyon saw the Warriors battle gamely for a point in a goalless draw and book a place in the final stage of the World Cup qualifiers.
A lot has changed since those years and Egyptian assistant coach, Hany Ramzy, conceded as such on Friday after the draw.
“The big difference (in quality) between the teams is not really there anymore, like it was 10 years ago in Africa,” Ramzy told BBC Sport.
“Now, every team has players who play in Europe so they have the experience to play at the highest level.”
For us, in that bracket, count the likes of Tendayi Darikwa, Marvelous Nakamba, Admiral Muskwe, Tino Kadewere, Alec Mudimu, to name but a few.
And, of course, the skipper Knowledge Musona.
They know him well in the Land of the Pharaohs — he scored in Alexandria in a 2014 World Cup qualifier in which the hosts needed a controversial last-minute penalty to force a 2-1 win.
Musona scored again in Harare but, this time, the Egyptians were comprehensive 4-2 winners with Mohamed Salah grabbing a superb hat-trick for them.
They have been checking his statistics in the qualifiers and they know he scored more goals (5) than Salah’s return of four.
Fifteen years after that entrance into the world of African football’s big boys, the Warriors will once again date the Pharaohs on their return to an AFCON finals on the other side of the Sahara.
For their coach Chidzambwa it’s a journey into a past so familiar, certainly unforgettable and probably, given that huge chance Mugeyi missed, regrettable given the vast possibilities which would have been opened for his team had that effort gone in.