Had anyone asked Callisto Pasuwa, the Zimbabwean coach, whether he would settle for a draw in the Warriors opening match against the Foxes of Algeria, I think Pasuwa would have gladly accepted a draw as a great result.
Yet had Zimbabwe capitalized on their chances, or had they been a little more lucky, they could have left the Stade de Franceville with three points in a game in which they led for close to an hour.
In the end Algeria salvaged a point, courtesy of two goals in either half from Riyard Mahrez, the first to put them in front and the second to level up scores after Zimbabwe had gone ahead.
It was a lively contest that brought to mind Sepp Herberger’s view of football that : “The ball is round. The game lasts ninety minutes. This much is fact. Everything else is theory.”
On paper Algeria were far more superior, boasting a storied line up featuring the likes of Yacine Brahimi and Leicester City’s Slimani and Mahrez, the latter the best footballer in Africa.
Zimbabwe, on the other hand, have not played at this level for a decade and have been dogged by administrative issues and financial problems coming into the tournament. The players are not happy with the football association and there were rumors that the kit was not even ready. It hardly looked a fair contest.
But that is theory, the game’s 90 minutes had to run out.
The Warriors started well, playing with good pace and skill, and an admirable lack of respect for their vaunted opponents, pressuring the Algerians into several corners. However Zimbabwe were forced into an early change as star striker Knowledge Musona appeared to have pulled a muscle and was replaced by Mathew Rusike.
Khama Billiat, never awed by the occasion, could have put Zimbabwe ahead in the first ten minutes. Twice he was thwarted, first by the Algerian goalkeeper and then rather unfortunately by the upright.
Riyard Mahrez capitalized on a misplaced back pass from Zimbabwe, producing a goal against the run of play twelve minutes into the match. It was not a chance the African footballer of the year would have missed. Up until then Zimbabwe’s Warriors had been in control of the game.
Zimbabwe responded within a few minutes as a goal from Kuda Mahachi leveled the match.
Near the half hour mark the Warriors were ahead, this time from a Mushekwi penalty that came from some brilliant play by Bhasera, who was impeded in the course of a great attacking move.
Nothing of note happened until just before half time when Zimbabwe had to defend several set pieces. A 40th minute free kick at the edge of the box had the Warriors holding their breath but the hard low free kick from Mahrez hit the Zimbabwean wall.
At the interval the Warriors, quite unbelievably, were in front. Despite not being dominant in the middle of the pitch, they had had numerous chances and six corners to Algeria’s one. It could very well have been 3-1 in favor of Zimbabwe, inconceivable as it seemed.
Twice Khama Billiat came very close soon after half time; first denied by some great goalkeeping after brilliantly turning the Algerian defense and then volleying over from the resultant corner.
Soon afterwards a Bentaleb freak shot narrowly missed the upright and near the hour mark an Algeria corner hit the post as Zimbabwe endured a spell of sustained Algerian pressure. Near 70 minutes Mukuruva had to produce a brilliant save to keep Zimbabwe in the lead. A near own goal was prevented by the post. By that time the Warriors goalkeeper was by far the busier of the two.
The Warriors coach, Callisto Pasuwa, seeking to change fortunes, withdrew Nyasha Mushekwi and brought on Cuthbert Malajila. It was a doubtful change, considering that he left the in-form Tendai Ndoro on the bench.
Inside a few minutes of his introduction, Malajila missed the game’s golden chance, when he found himself one on one with the Algerian goalkeeper, setting the stage for an Algerian equalizer moments later. It was a classical Mahrez goal, but one the Zimbabwean goalkeeper should have saved.
The last few minutes of the game were nervous for the Warriors but they held on. It was a game Zimbabwe could have won, a game Malajila threw away.
At the end the Warriors held on to a point. And in the scuffles of the game, where the midfield were reduced to spectators in an affair entirely dominated by forwards, it is ironic that for Zimbabwe the outstanding performer was Willard Katsande.
The Kaizer Chiefs anchorman harried and chased, tackled and won the ball, breaking up Algerian attacks time and again and gave his heart to the game. One hopes he will be paired with a more mobile partner in the games to come. His midfield partner of the day, Danny Phiri, is an able ball winner, as much a tough tackler as Katsande himself, but he was found wanting when Zimbabwe were in possession.
In possession the Warriors lacked an authoritative figure with the mobility, vision and inventiveness in midfield required to control the match. Without such a central midfielder they had no option but to punt the ball upfield to their forwards rather than build up play from the middle. The Vitesse midfielder Marvelous Nakamba should be considered for future matches, seeing how ineffective the Warriors were in the middle of the pitch.
Callisto Pasuwa will also have to display greater coaching acumen than he did in this game, particularly in the second half where the team was reduced to defending for long periods and several players drifted aimlessly around the pitch. His team selection is also questionable, and there will be questions of why he didn’t bring in Tendai Ndoro or another central midfielder or winger in place of, say, a tiring Mahachi later on. He is one of the least experienced coaches at the tournament and on this grandest of stages it showed.
Still, it was a game that Zimbabwe will feel they ought to have won. It would have been an entirely different story had Cuthbert Malajila put away his chance and on another day Billiart could have scored two or three.
Callisto Pasuwa will also be encouraged by his charges’ performance and their refusal to be cowed by the stage or their opponents. The hope is that they will take heart from this draw, and build on it in the coming games against Tunisia and Senegal.
A win against Tunisia now looks possible and, judging from this spirited performance, the Warriors can get at least a draw against Senegal and realistically qualify from one the tournament’s toughest groups.
It was a thrilling match, and a reminder of the game’s most enduring lesson – that the whole is not always a sum of its parts. Football is a team sport, and beyond having a talented squad, the team that plays well together is more likely to win. Especially in national teams where the teams have little time to gel and get used to one another.
The Guardian’s Peter Doyle, in his analysis of the tournament’s teams had given Zimbabwe no chance, saying their stay in the tournament would be short. It seems he will be proved wrong.
After all, the game is 90 minutes, the ball is round. That much is fact. The rest, who can say?