WATCHING ruefully as the Africa Cup of Nations gets underway was to be expected of Zimbabwean football fans, unable to brush aside thoughts of how their own team would have fared had an international ban not prevented the Warriors from qualifying for the showpiece.
The frustration of being sidelined has only deepened after some of the smaller African teams opened their 2024 Afcon campaign in Côte d’Ivoire with remarkable results against traditional giants of the continent – early indications it could turn out to be a wide open tournament that gives everybody a chance to have a go.
But former Zimbabwe star midfielder Esrom Nyandoro says there is no point now in regretting the might-have-beens and, in fact, reckons the setback is an opportunity for his homeland to wake up to the reality of the state of the game in the country.
“I will be blunt and say we (Zimbabwe) are living in dreamland as a country,” Nyandoro, who is working as a television pundit for the South African Broadcasting Corporation during the tournament, told The NewsHawks from Pretoria on Wednesday.
“We look at Namibia, we look at Botswana, and wonder why they are where they are now with their football, without bothering to find out what they’ve been doing right.”
Minnows Namibia produced an inspired performance to stun former champions Tunisia 1-0 in a Group E opener on Tuesday, one of the earliest noteworthy feats by the lesser sides in the tournament. On Sunday, fellow Southern Africans Mozambique were on the verge of a massive upset before drawing 2-2 with Mohamed Salah- inspired Egypt.
Warriors great Nyandoro remarked that the Namibians in particular are reaping the rewards of their professional approach, contrary to that of his native Zimbabwe, whose suspension by Fifa was only lifted in July 2023 after the line-up for Côte d’Ivoire 2024 had already been finalised.
“We (Zimbabwe) mustn’t be bogged down by what didn’t happen, we didn’t qualify, we are not in the tournament,” said Nyandoro, who played for Zimbabwe at the 2004 and 2006 Africa Cup of Nations editions.
“We knew the ban would come to an end one day, what did we do during that period? At the moment, Zimbabwe doesn’t have a coach, Zimbabwe doesn’t have an Under-23 team, Zimbabwe doesn’t have an Under-20 team. Is the standard of our league satisfactory? What about the development structures? Did that ban affect our domestic league? No, it didn’t. We kept playing. But are we happy with the league’s standards? For us to improve our league, we need to have Under-13s, Under-15s, Under-20s. I’m telling you now, I knew eight certain starters of the Namibian team way before the (Afcon) tournament. Zimbabwe doesn’t even have a core squad. If Esrom scores three goals today, he is in! We are not doing justice to the kids.”
Following the country’s return to international football mid-last year, Zimbabwe opened its 2026 World Cup qualification quest with two draws against Rwanda and Nigeria in November. Nyandoro, now head scout of South African club giants Mamelodi Sundowns – where he had a distinguished playing career – urged his fellow countrymen not to be overly ambitious in their World Cup bid.
“Don’t look to qualify,” commented Nyandoro. “Look to form a base, a base for the next editions of the Africa Cup of Nations in two years’ time, in four years’ time. Look to have a side that can not only qualify, but one that can even try to win the tournament.”
Nyandoro praised the quality of individual players in Zimbabwe’s newlook squad, and was left impressed by the team’s 1-1 draw with continental power Nigeria when the Warriors displayed an enterprising brand of football to nearly defeat the Super Eagles. Still, Nyandoro does not want to see the Warriors get ahead of themselves.
“Almost isn’t good enough,” he said. “You can get five to 10 chances in a game and miss them. At the end of the day it’s not a win. We need to plan as a nation, and avoid short-cuts. Short-cuts will catch up with us one day. It’s so sad we’ll continue to say ‘why is Namibia playing the way it is playing, yet we have better players?’ It’s because they have had a long-term plan. They have had the same coach (Collin Benjamin) for a while now, and they’ve said this is how we want to play. They’ve progressed, when us guys back home still do things the same way we used to do things in 2004. They (Namibia) have about 11 people on their backroom staff; this one does this, this one does that – video analysis and stuff like that. This is what you should be looking at doing in this day and age.”
The bulk of Namibia’s squad members in the Ivory Coast ply their trade in South Africa, both in the Premier Soccer League (PSL) and the second-tier competition, the Motsepe Foundation Championship.
Debate has raged among football fans in Zimbabwe for a long time over the quality of domestic football in South Africa, with several critics arguing that the Warriors should rather be looking beyond, to Europe, for selection.
South Africa’s domestic game, however to Nyandoro, will continue to be vindicated by such stories as Namibia’s.
“If you say the standards of the (South African) PSL are inferior, what about those of the Motsepe Foundation Championship, where some of the Namibian players are? With the same Motsepe Foundation Championship players, Namibia have beaten Tunisia, one of the most consistent teams in the history of the Africa Cup of Nations,” remarked Nyandoro.
“In nine previous games at the Africa Cup of Nations, Namibia conceded 24 goals. Now with the same PSL and Motsepe Foundation players, they had a clean-sheet against Tunisia. Why is it so? Organisation! It’s all about organising
yourself. Namibia have kept faith in coach Collin Benjamin, for a long time now. The Namibian federation gave him a plan, and he gave them a programme. He looked at Namibia’s record at the Africa Cup of Nations and said ‘wait a minute, this must not be allowed to go on.
Let’s build from the back, defensively. Let’s stop them (Tunisia) from playing football, let’s not allow them time on the ball, let’s not respect them too much’. You see. As for me, I don’t care what happens in their next games, they (Namibia) have already achieved something in this tournament.”