Eddie Chikamhi Senior Sports Reporter
ZIMBABWE came within five minutes of kissing goodbye to the 2022 World Cup but Khama Billiat’s late strike averted a huge embarrassment for the Warriors yesterday.
The hosts rallied back to beat minnows Somalia in a nerve-wrecking second leg of the preliminary round qualifiers at the National Sports Stadium.
The Warriors, who suffered a shock 0-1 defeat in the first leg last week, faced certain elimination from the global football showcase until the 77th minute when Marshal Munetsi broke the deadlock with an overhead kick. Interestingly, the France-based midfielder was about to be taken out when he scored the goal after playing with a stomach bug.
But a moment of horror almost scuppered Zimbabwe’s chances when Somalia forward Omah Abdullah Mohamed took advantage of a defensive error by Teenage Hadebe to level the scores.
The away goal meant Zimbabwe needed to score two more goals in the last five minutes and, considering the way they had toiled the whole afternoon, it appeared a tall order.
However, substitute Knox Mtizwa emerged as the hero.
The Golden Arrows man gave Zimbabwe the fighting chance when he buried a free-kick in the 88th minute before setting up Billiat, whose rising shot gave the ‘keeper Said Alweys Ali no chance.
“First of all, it’s very pleasing to go through to the group stages of the qualifiers,’’ said caretaker coach Joey Antipas.
‘‘We played against the so-called minnows but, in football, there are no minnows anymore. I don’t know why the press keep talking about the minnows.
“They (Somalia) could be ranked, maybe third from the bottom, but you saw that this team has improved dramatically.’’
The pressure on the Warriors was clear from the start but the more they tried to rush things the more errors they made. The supporters too were getting impatient and they reacted angrily when Billiat miscued an effort midway through the first half.
“All we needed was an opening goal but we battled to get that opening goal,’’ said Antipas.
‘‘What made me very happy was the spirit because we kept probing and pushing and once we got that opening goal we were well on our way.
“Mistakes do happen in football but Teenage was outstanding. He made that costly mistake but the rest of the players gave him a good pat on the back to keep fighting.’’
The win means Zimbabwe and 13 other teams that pulled through from the preliminary round will join the 26 better ranked nations, which had a bye in the draw, for the group stages of the qualifiers which resume next year in March.
The teams will be divided into 10 groups of four teams. At the end of the rigorous qualifying procedure, only five teams will get the ticket to represent the continent at the FIFA 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Somalia coach Bashir Hayford, whose side won their first World Cup game against Zimbabwe last week, believes his charges gave a good shift in the two legs.
The Ghanaian football mentor also thought match referee Rakotojaona Andofetra gave them a raw deal.
“You know, many countries underrate Somalia but now we are coming up. We knew the position we were in because we all watched Zimbabwe at AFCON.
“We knew it was not an easy task. We had one week to prepare for the first leg but the second leg was not easy because of the travels so we had two training sessions.
“The only problem was when we equalised, the players thought that was the end. But I called them and told them that in African football, until the final whistle goes, you have not won. I think the referee was too harsh on us honestly. Some decisions were so harsh,” said Hayford.
Zimbabwe: E. Chipezeze, I. Nekati, D. Lunga, T. Hadebe, A. Mudimu, M. Munetsi, O. Karuru, K. Billiat, E. Rusike, K. Mahachi (T. Kamusoko, 90th min), C. Augusto (K. Mtizwa, 53rd min)
Somalia: Said Ali, Yonis Farah, Mohamud Mohamed, Ahmed Ahmed, Abel Mohamed, Ahmed Mohamed, Abdulaziz Yousef (Abas Mohamed, 61st min), Abdulsamed Abdullahi, Anwar Shakunda, Omah Mohamed, Hussein Mohamed (Eyman Hussein, 75th min)