WARRIORS skipper Willard Katsande was yesterday basking in glory of entering “a special enclosure” when he became the second captain to lead Zimbabwe to the Africa Cup of Nations soccer finals following their qualification for Gabon 2017 tournament. Katsande, who has followed the footsteps of the legendary Peter Ndlovu who led the Warriors to the 2004 and 2006 AFCON finals in Tunisia and Egypt respectively, was literally out of words as soon as he learnt that his troops had filled their place at the continental soccer showpiece following their 30 triumph over Malawi at the National Sports Stadium yesterday. On the same day Swaziland edged Guinea 10 in another battle of Group L rivals.
The Warriors victory over Malawi and the result from Mbabane meant Katsande and his men had made history by becoming the first Warriors class to qualify for Nations Cup finals with a game to spare. An ecstatic Katsande was virtually in dream land as he recounted the campaign that ironically started in the most comical and chaotic fashion when the team had to embark on a road trip to Blantyre, Malawi, on the eve of the game only to arrive a few hours before kickoff but went on to conjecture a crucial away victory.
The team had to endure more anxiety when coach Callisto Pasuwa was briefly dismissed following an impasse with ZIFA before he was reinstated following a public outcry coupled with the Minister of Sport and Recreation Makhosini Hlongwane’s intervention. Zimbabwe first qualified to the Africa Cup of Nations finals 2004 in Tunisia under the guidance of Sunday “Mhofu” Chidzambwa before Charles Mhlauri and his men booked another ticket at the following edition in Egypt.
The Warriors, who have always been the near men of African football, then took another sabbatical of 10 years before they did it yesterday in great fashion, qualifying with a game in hand. However, Katsande feels that they can still make more history by becoming the first team to progress beyond the group stages. “Obviously it is a good feeling. I can’t believe we have made it, we proved the doubters wrong that were always saying we were going to fail but unfortunately today we made history.
“And also me as the second captain (After Peter Ndlovu) to qualify for AFCON, it means a lot me. It is a dream come true and I can’t take the feeling . . . you know I am having some goose bumps for qualifying for AFCON as the second captain and it is a great feeling for me,” said Katsande. The Kaizer Chiefs hardman saluted everyone, from the fans up to the media, for playing a crucial role in the qualifiers. “And also we need to thank our fans, they came to the party, all the games we played at home without them was not going to be possible. I think they deserve the victory, they deserve the qualification and all I can say now is we just need to go and celebrate our victory” said Katsande.
With this current Warriors class becoming the first to book a ticket to the AFCON finals with a game to play, Katsande believes this shows that this crop of players is special and simply talented. “It shows the quality we have in the team. We started this journey last year sometime in June and we travelled with the bus to Malawi and people were laughing at us and they thought maybe we were joking and were just pushovers in this campaign. “It is emotional to qualify against all the odds and I don’t have much to say. I think the credit must go to the entire team and the technical team,” he said. Katsande says qualifying for the AFCON finals sort of atone for the disappointment of being booted out of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers as this current crop of players will finally get a chance to at least compete at the highest stage in Africa.
“When we had the draw, we spoke about it with other senior players in the team and we said that’s our last chance gents, especially us we are going into the 30s so we need to give it our last push and try to qualify so that whenever we retire from football we will say at least I played at the highest level in AFCON and also the youngsters who knows maybe tomorrow they might not go. “So yesterday after prematch training, we sat as a team without coaches after training and spoke about it that this is the time we have to show character and the media has been good to us, showering us with praises and good comments; and all we needed to do was to focus on the game and win it for us and for our fans. “Obviously with the quality we have in the team it is disappointing that we are not taking part in World Cup qualifiers for 2018 but I think if we got a chance to play the World Cup qualifiers I think with the group we have at the moment there is so much quality and we could have gone very far.
Katsande was confident that this time around the Warriors will proceed beyond the group stages at the AFCON finals. “We are going to Gabon. We are not going there to just add up the numbers but we need to stand our ground and also we are going there as underdogs but we need to prove and we are going to upset a lot of teams because we have the quality to win. “The squad we have at the moment has a lot of talent and we are going to make history and go beyond the group stages,” said Katsande.