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Even in the distressing world of constant decline that is Zimbabwean cricket, January was a watershed month as the entire 35-man squad of international players downed bats, refusing to play again for the national body until all outstanding match fees and salaries were paid in full.

“Zimbabwe cricket has really had it now,” Clive Field, the players’ representative, acknowledged as the country slipped further into isolation. That same week, though there was some rare good news for Zimbabwean sport.

Football may always have been played by more people in Zimbabwe but, in terms of international success and recognition, it has lagged far behind cricket. Although only a final-game defeat to Cameroon prevented them from qualifying for the World Cup in 1994, it wasn’t until 2004 that the Warriors reached the final stages of the African Cup of Nations. Two years later, not only did they qualify again, but got within a whisker of reaching the quarter-finals in Egypt. “It’s a shame to go out but you have to look at what we have achieved,” said their captain, the veteran forward Peter Ndlovu. “To come so close is sign of real progress.”

As Nigeria came from a goal down to beat Senegal in Port Said, an hour down the Suez Canal in Ismailia, Zimbabwe, needing a three-goal victory over Ghana to qualify as group runners-up, struck twice in the second half. In injury-time, Joel Luphahla seemed to have added a decisive third only for the effort to be ruled out for offside. Shattered, they immediately conceded. “Unfortunately we lost out on an offside but that happens in football,” said their coach Charles Mhlauri. “We left it maybe too late but it was a decent performance.”

It was their third in a row and that in itself is encouraging. “If we are to measure in terms of performance I think there was an improvement [from Tunisia in 2004],” Mhlauri went on. “Last time we went out after our second game and the third game was just a formality. This time we were still in the competition, so that is an improvement.”

Two close defeats followed by a narrow failure to qualify on goal difference may not seem like much to celebrate but some context is needed. For one thing, Zimbabwe were drawn in an impossibly difficult group with three of the continent’s giants. One of their opponents was buoyant after qualifying for the World Cup for the first time, the other two were smarting after failing to get there. “People expected us to be eaten alive,” said Ndlovu, “but we showed a lot of courage. We can be very proud.”

Zimbabwe were also the only one of the three Anglophone southern African sides at the Nations to emerge with credit. Since winning the tournament in 1996, South Africa’s decline has been inexorable and in Egypt they were dreadful, losing all three games. No side, surely, has ever been in such a dire state four years before it hosts a World Cup. Zambia were almost as bad and it is hard to imagine they would have gathered the three points they did had they not been in a group with the South Africans. Alongside the performances of those teams, Zimbabwe were a raging success. Little wonder they won the Cosafa Cup for teams from the south of the continent last year.

Mhlauri must take great credit for Zimbabwe’s progress. Young, dreadlocked and strikingly intelligent, he combines coaching the national team with managing the club side CAPS United, whom he led to the double last season. In his understated way, he is rightly bullish about the present state of Zimbabwean football but he is frustrated by the perception that things are not as good now as they were a decade or two ago, when the side contained such noted players as Bruce Grobbelaar, Friday Phiri and Agent Sawu.

“I don’t buy the conception that in previous years we had better players and a better team,” he said. “If you look at the 80s, we disappointed for all the hype behind the team. I believe we have better players now than we had before but we are disadvantaged because we don’t have players playing in Europe.”

Of the 23 players in Egypt, Benjani Mwaruwari – who plays for Portsmouth in the English Premier League – is the only one representing a club in a top-flight league, while 18 of the squad play in either Zimbabwe or South Africa. “Nigeria, Senegal and Ghana can draw players from France, England, the best leagues in the world,” Mhlauri went on. “In terms of international exposure, yes we are down.”

There are obvious recent political reasons why that may be but, equally, English football has historically taken fewer footballers from its former colonies than, for instance, France has from its. Indeed, almost one in five players at the Nations Cup play their club football in France. “It’s because of our location,” said Mhlauri. “Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique – we all seem to be having the same problem whereas in West African countries, they just skip across the ocean to a better world. I would suggest that to improve our football we have to market our players more outside Zimbabwe and put as many as we can into European leagues.”

In that regard, Benjani becomes crucial, just as Ndlovu was in his days at Coventry and Sheffield United. “We are looking at him as an ambassador to all the youngsters and he has a role to play representing the people of Zimbabwe,” Mhlauri explained. “Obviously people look and say, we got this player from Zimbabwe, and the chances are that there are better players than him. It’s good for him to play well for himself, but it’s extra important for him to market other players from Zimbabwe. In a former British colony it’s easier for somebody playing in England to be recognised. When Peter was playing in England, everybody was following him – hopefully with Benjani it will be the same thing.”

Although he admits that he doesn’t even understand the rules of cricket, Mhlauri acknowledges that Benjani’s ambassadorial role has become even more critical in the wake of the problems that have led to Zimbabwean cricket losing its Test status. “Cricket players, soccer players, they all share the same responsibility,” he said. “I cannot draw a line and say the cricketers are more important than football. All I can say is maybe Zimbabwe suffered from a problem where cricketers were more respected, more influential than football players, but now footballers have a greater responsibility to be ambassadors for their country.”

In Mhlauri’s understated dignity, Benjani’s arrival at Portsmouth and the gradual improvement of the Warriors, they are making a decent fist of that. Amid the chaos of Zimbabwean sport, football sheds a welcome glow of hope.

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