Robson Sharuko in CAIRO, Egypt
THE tragedy about how it ended — in a blaze of chaos and humiliation — is that very few will remember how it started, amid a ray of promise and Khama Billiat’s brilliance at this AFCON finals will sadly be buried under the sand as the negativity of the Warriors’ collapse takes centre stage.
In a tournament where the usual talisman of the team, skipper Knowledge Musona, struggled badly, Billiat was a refreshing oasis of consistency and determination as he turned on some fine performances game after game.
The 28-year-old Kaizer Chiefs forward was the star of these Warriors here, underlining his status as one of the finest players still plying their trade on the continent, but his fine contributions were not matched by his teammates with many of them struggling to reach the levels he kept setting.
And, when the end came at the June 30 Stadium on Sunday, in that humiliating 0-4 defeat at the hands of the Democratic Republic of Congo, it became clear it had taken a toll on Billiat.
Disturbed by his team’s shocking collapse, as his teammates struggled to do just the basics, Billiat could be seen, now and again, pouring out his frustrations as his bid for an extended stay at this Nations Cup finals suffered a stillbirth.
A very strong performance against the Pharaohs in the opening game was rewarded with nothing as the Pharaohs found a way to win that game 1-0.
Probably, it was a match Billiat and his teammates had ticked as one they were likely to lose and, having run the record African champions close, the Warriors’ star chose to be complementary to his teammates, choosing to focus on the positives, than the negatives.
“I just want to give credit to the boys. As much as we didn’t get the result that we wanted, we showed professionalism‚ we stayed focused and we just needed to do little mistakes that we made and wrong decisions better‚” Billiat said after that game.
“When to pass and when to shoot — those little things. I think we have learnt. The guys started showing more confidence in the second half.
“I think the guys are really professional. I give credit for that. The way we did put everything away in a space of a few hours (with their camp being plagued by a pay row between the players and ZIFA officials on the eve of the match)‚ and shifted the focus to the game.
“I’m not saying we got this result (a defeat) because of what happened. We showed professionalism.
“If what happened had made us have a bad performance, we could have lost by more‚ we couldn’t have had certain moments that we had.
“We still have a chance to do better. And thank God there are more games coming. We’ll use this game to rectify our mistakes.”
Those game came, thick and fast, for Billiat and his teammates.
The first one arrived last Wednesday, against the Cranes of Uganda, and Billiat dominated the show and deservedly earned the man-of-the-match honours.
His goal was a beauty, the way he stroked the ball home after arriving late in the box to connect a pass from Ovidy Karuru, to beat Africa’s number one goalkeeper Denis Onyango.
Sadly, it was to be the only time the Warriors would score at this tournament — the worst return, in terms of goals return, for the team at the AFCON finals.
In just one game, against Algeria in the opening match of the 2017 AFCON finals, the Warriors scored more goals (two) than they did in three matches here.
By the time their Nations Cup adventure was over, two years ago, they had scored four times in three matches, with the goals coming from four different goal-scorers — Kuda Mahachi, Nyasha Mushekwi, Tendai Ndoro and Musona — against arguably tougher opposition against the Algerians and the Tunisians.
Now, the Warriors will return home with just a goal, Billiat’s goal, to show for their efforts.
That game should have been won but Musona somehow crashed his effort, when presented with an open goal, against the crossbar.
“During the match, I thought we were going to get a second goal,’’ Billiat said. “This is a result which we didn’t want, you could see how they (Uganda) celebrated after the game.
“We the strikers let the nation down, we just need to step up and take the responsibility of converting the chances because football is a game of scoring.
“If you don’t score, you don’t stand any chance.” Billiat didn’t score in the final game against the DRC but he remained the biggest threat for the Warriors in that match where they crashed to a 0-4 defeat.
His fine performances have not gone without being noticed.
After all, fans of Egyptian powerhouse Al Ahly, have been pushing their club’s bosses to try an audacious bid to bring Billiat into their fold from his base at Kaizer Chiefs in the South African Premiership.
The Zimbabwean kept saying he won’t discuss anything related to his future because he was just concentrating on doing well for his Warriors. But, now that the campaign is over for him, and his teammates, it’s likely that some discussions will start between the forward and his management team.
It’s sad that the AFCON is about teams, and not individuals, because — given how he performed here — a talent like Billiat doesn’t deserve to be flying back home after just three games.