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Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor
NINETEEN years apart, same tournament, same stadium, same goal, roughly about the same time – where Agent Sawu ended up drenched in his tears in 1993, Khama Billiat was mobbed by an army of delirious teammates and ecstatic fans on Tuesday.
The more things change, for the Warriors in the World Cup qualifiers, the more they appear to stay the same.
As the sun began to set on Tuesday, and two of the four minutes of added time having been played, the Warriors were not only facing elimination from the 2022 World Cup qualifiers, after just five days of action, but humiliation at the hands of Somalia.
The same homeless Ocean Stars who, until they somehow found a way to beat the Warriors in Djibouti last Thursday, had never won a World Cup qualifier before and had lost 19 successive matches.
And, for 77 minutes at the National Sports Stadium on Tuesday, the plucky visitors – who played with exceptional commitment and exemplary discipline in a defensive masterclass that made a mockery of their status as Africa’s lowest-ranked nation – the Ocean Stars were on course for the biggest upset in World Cup qualifying history in Africa.
Even when the outstanding Marshall Munetsi broke the deadlock, with a spectacular overhead kick, the disjointed Warriors – who appeared to be choking under the pressure of avoiding writing history for all the wrong reasons – didn’t produce the blitzkrieg needed to get the second goal.
Instead, they were the ones that conceded, with just five minutes of regulation time left, with the away goal meaning the Warriors had to score twice, in the remaining portion of a game that never sparkled, without letting in another goal, for them to avoid elimination.
Even after the impressive Knox Mutizwa gave them a lifeline, with a cracking free-kick that took a slight deflection off the head of a Somali defender, in the 87th minute, the advantage was still with the visitors. But, with half of the referee’s optional time having been played, Mutizwa – who somehow continues to be ignored by successive coaches despite his impressive work rate and predatory instincts – threaded a pass into the path of Billiat from deep on the right flank.
It was a superb pick by the substitute, given those who had played before him somehow didn’t appear to see the Achilles Heel in the Somali defence of just concentrating on one side, leaving them vulnerable on the blind side, and Billiat’s first touch was excellent.
Another touch took him clear of his marker and the execution, under pressure, was top class – the left-footed effort hit to perfection to fly over the goalkeeper, who simply had no chance, and settle into the top far corner.
With that sweet strike, a country’s entire World Cup dreams were restored and it ensured the Warriors, who missed the last qualifiers for the global showcase after being barred by FIFA, would fight another day in the group stages that start in March next year.
Remarkably, this was the first World Cup qualifying win, in 12 matches, for the Warriors whose last victory had come at Rufaro, 11 years ago, in a 2-0 win over Namibia. The goal also meant Billiat has scored in his last FIVE successive home AFCON/World Cup qualifiers for the Warriors, an impressive record that started on March 28, 2016, when he scored in the 4-0 Nations Cup qualifier victory over Swaziland at the giant stadium.
That was followed by a goal in the 3-0 2017 AFCON qualifier against Malawi at the same stadium on June 5, 2016, a goal in the 1-1 draw against the DRC and a goal in the 2-0 win over Congo-Brazzaville in the 2019 Nations Cup qualifiers.
He also scored the only goal for the Warriors at the 2019 AFCON finals in the 1-1 draw against Uganda.
“For the Lord your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory,’’ Billiat tweeted after the win at the giant stadium. ‘‘#inGodwetrust #GoWarriorsGo.’’
The stand-in skipper, Alec Mudimu, thanked the fans for their amazing support.
‘‘What a gripping game. Thank you to all who supported and believed in the squad of players and technical team,’’ he tweeted. ‘‘I pray you all continue to show love and support as always and we continue to move in the right direction.
‘‘We won today with a special group of players who believed 100%.’’
For, the older generation of the Warriors’ fans, Billiat’s last-gasp winner against Somalia had a similar ringing tone to the goal Sawu scored for the Dream Team in a ’94 World Cup qualifier, at the same stadium, against the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon.
With time running out, and only a few minutes left before the end of the game on July 4, 1993, the West Africans appeared to have avoided a storm and pick-pocketed a crucial point.
Reinhard Fabisch’s Dream Team had seen their 13-match unbeaten run, in the AFCON/World Cup qualifiers, stretching over two years between April 1991 and May 1993, come to an end in a 0-3 defeat in Conakry at the hands of Guinea.
Anything short of victory, against the Indomitable Lions, would have virtually ended their campaign in the three-team final group campaign for a place at the ’94 World Cup finals in the United States.
Then, just like on Tuesday, Fabisch threw in substitutes Vitalis Takawira and Madinda Ndlovu who would have a huge impact and when the ball was swung into the Cameroon area, with the clock showing just three minutes left, Sawu outjumped the goalkeeper and headed home.
It triggered pandemonium, among the 60 000 fans inside the giant stadium, while Sawu, overcome with emotion, buried his face into his hands and wept uncontrollably.