A journey of a thousand miles, of sweat, sacrifice and a few smiles – combined with remarkable goals from Rudo Neshamba – brought the Mighty Warriors within a few weeks of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. It’s the greatest achievement yet by any national football team in Zimbabwe.
It wasn’t so long ago that the Zimbabwe women’s national team played their first international match, on November 11, 2000. They drew 2-2 against Uganda in the 2000 African Women’s Championship.
Now, like one falling in love for the first time, the nation’s heart beats with every tick of the clock as August 3 draws closer. Then they will step onto the lush green pitch of the Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo, kicking off their maiden Olympic campaign against one of the best teams in the world, Germany. Just last year, at their Women’s World Cup debut, another African nation, Cote d’Ivoire, suffered torture at the feet of the unforgiving ‘German machines.’ But should that be worrisome?
Nonetheless, from being on the verge of disqualification to now living the dream of a nation, the Zimbabwe women will be giving their country their first taste of of global football on that historic trip to Brazil. This surely is not about holding up the coveted gold medal to their lips for a kiss, but about an opportunity they just cannot miss, and more so about the rejected stone becoming the chief cornerstone.
“It has been a long and arduous journey indeed, but we pulled through against all odds,” Mighty Warriors goal poacher, Rudo Neshamba, recounted.
Rudo Neshamba did not score the most goals in Olympic qualifying – that honor went to Jade Boho of Equatorial Guinea – but she certainly left a mark. Out of Zimbabwe’s four goals, her three goals (including two away from home) ensured a job well done as the Mighty Warriors shocked the continent in their Road to Rio campaign.
“It feels good to be the heroine, the lady whose goal wrote a new piece of history.”
And the lady who coach Shadreck Mlauzi described as “quite an intelligent player, skillful and a natural goal scorer.”
Mlauzi, a Physical Education teacher, replaced Rosemary Mugadza in September, prior to Zimbabwe’s match against Cameroon. During our phone conversation, the 36-year-old highlighted the three things that define him: “hope, faith and ambition.” He admitted to feeling pressure when he first took over; although he has been involved in women’s football for over 16 years, including as an assistant for the country’s U20 team, this was his first senior position.
In just six months he has proven he has that midas touch, gradually transforming the Mighty Warriors to a team to be reckoned with in Africa:
“One needed to bring in a change of attitude, remove the mental block in the players’ heads, bring in the element of Sports Science and introduce modern training methods which emphasise the difference between work and rest ratio. Make the players believe in the vision of the team, never leaving anything to chance, analyzing the oppositions and giving information pertaining how they are supposed to go about certain teams.”
He claims his side is still under construction and aims to build on the physical ability of his players. Mlauzi wants the Mighty Warriors to be known for possession-based football, but he’ll also strive for a balance between defence and attack.
Previously the team’s greatest achievement was their fourth-place finish in the 2000 Africa Women’s Cup of Nations, more than 15 years ago, so an Olympic berth seemed a tall order from the start. Then they realized the’d have to meet 2015 World Cup participants, Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon, along the way. But Zimbabwe took it one game at a time.
Despite little continental success, the Mighty Warriors still bypassed the first round, which meant southern rivals Zambia were their first port of call. Neshamba made the difference with an away goal in what was eventually a 2-2 draw on aggregate.
Zimbabwe’s Olympic dream nearly ended then, when the Confederation of African Football (CAF) announced their journey was over. The Zimbabwe Football Association (ZIFA) lacked the funds to send them to Abidjan for the next round. However, fate (or faith) is a genius at wrecking impossibilities. FIFA overturned CAF’s decision, awarding a 3-0 victory instead to Côte d’Ivoire, who in turn did not show up in Harare for the return leg. The tie was rescheduled, but Cote d’Ivoire withdrew, paving way for Zimbabwe to face the Indomitable Lionesses in the final round.
Cameroon, still fresh from a memorable debut at the 2015 World Cup, were looking to qualify for their second straight Olympics. The Mighty Warriors must have already smelled their exit, but their hope was renewed when they held on to Neshamba’s goal for nearly 70 minutes in Yaounde before Cameroon bounced back to win the first leg 2-1.
In spite of that, however, Neshamba’s eighth-minute strike in Harare proved to be the goal that unlocked their Olympic fortune – a reminder of how in 2011, her goals qualified the Mighty Warriors for the All-Africa Games in Maputo, Mozambique. The 24-year-old’s beauty of a volley lit up Rafaro Stadium in such a special way that the Lionesses seemed too blinded to recover.
Neshamba told FIFA.com, “It was only after our first leg game in Cameroon that we believed we had a chance. Then we actually thought that we would make it.”
“I am incredibly proud to help my country achieve this dream. The victory was celebrated throughout Zimbabwe, and we can feel that the whole country is behind the team,” the dreadlocked diva enthused.
The ladies went on to secure a ticket for the 10th Africa Women’s Cup of Nations, to take place in Cameroon beginning November 2016. They last appeared at the continent’s flagship women’s tournament in 2004. All in all, a sweet 2016 for the Mighty Warriors.
But life is still not fair especially where women’s football is concerned. Every now and then, the plea for support of the women’s game is continually sung like an anthem (even in the US).
“Honestly, it is the same globally. The focus really is on men’s football,” Coach Mlauzi lamented.
“But the women face a lot of challenges. Speaking about my team, we’ve managed two qualifiers within a period of six months but to date our players remain as poor as they were before they managed to achieve such historic feat for the nation. Instead of attaching support in celebrating that achievement by form of reward, all we got is praise.”
It is not that Mlauzi and his heroines do not appreciate the massive celebrations, parade and praise showered in their honour. They were even hosted to a dinner by the Ministry of Sports and Recreation. “We felt like dignitaries for the whole week,” Mlauzi admitted. But he still adds that “in terms of something tangible, the team has nothing to show for it.”
Zimbabwean journalist and photographer Grace Chirumhanzu also feels “the country [has] yet to realize what these women have achieved.” She believes only after the first whistle blast in Rio will they really appreciate the magnitude of Mighty Warriors’ success.
Reports in the local media stated the players each received $50 after they qualified for AWCON. According to Chirumhanzu, the money was “a token of the ZIFA president’s appreciation, which he initially expressed that it was for them to buy dresses.” The Ministry of Sport was reported to have promised the team residential stands but as Grace further explained: “that process in Zimbabwe can, however, be long and for politicians, that promise alone could be it.”
A chat with the Mighty Warriors captain, Felistas Muzongondi, on June 15, revealed no lands had been received. Wicknell Chivayo, a businessman described as a ZIFA partner, gifted Mlauzi a car, but this has not stopped the coach from speaking out on behalf of his girls.
The Zimbabwe men’s national team have never progressed past the group stage of any AFCON, nor upset the odds to reach the world stage, yet like in most of the world, the Warriors are given the most attention. Even in their cash-strapped state, ZIFA goes the extra mile to source funds. In 2012, then-president Cuthbert Dube put up his house as collateral in order for the Warriors to attend training camp.
But little effort was made to raise the $34,000 the Mighty Warriors needed for their trip to Cote d’Ivoire last year. All ZIFA – then led by Dube – could give was an apology. One questions the association’s belief in the ability of their women’s team to overcome even their West African opponents, much less those outside the continent.
In December 2015, power changed hands when Phillip Chiyangwa was elected ZIFA President; however, their financial situation has not changed. The Mighty Warriors have had to boycott training a couple of times this year in protest of unpaid match bonuses and allowances, money that seemingly remains unpaid.
The women cannot even boast of a functional national league, a far contrast to the men’s Super League whose matches are broadcast on cable TV. Plans for a women’s league began in 2011, and although it kicked off in 2012, the league was not continued in 2013. Despite a resurrection of that interest in 2014, no recent action has been taken to create such a league.
“It’s by the grace of the Almighty. All along, we knew there was very little support coming towards women’s football and all we did was play for the love of our country and recognition,” said Felistas “Figo” Muzongondi, captain of the Mighty Warriors.
“Our focus despite all the financial hardships was to win with a broader view being that of putting the nation on the world map and now that we’ve achieved our goal, we hope that the powers that be will now give us the much-needed recognition which to us was the driving force behind our success.”
Chirumhanzu said,“The players wish to be treated with respect by being rewarded financially for their efforts. It is their hope that they could earn a living from the game because some of them come from families who look up to them for support.”
It’s no wonder Neshamba is refusing to be deterred from her current studies. While football got in the way previously – she’s been an integral part of the Zimbabwe teams from the U20 level on – she has now enrolled in a journalism course at Harare College. Neshamba recognizes that, unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to earn a living as a footballer in her country.
Even journalists like Chirumhanzu find it challenging to promote women’s football in the country. According to her, “The Mighty Warriors’ achievements vis-à-vis their struggles are just inspiring. They tell a story of strong African women who never give up on their dreams no matter the challenges.” But she believes the media does not value women’s sport.
“I remember when the Mighty Warriors qualified for the Olympics on a Sunday, the following day I pitched a story to a Sunday newspaper that I wanted to do a feature on their qualification and I was told that there was nothing I could write really because the story would have been exhausted in the daily papers.
That was certainly never going to be the case with the Warriors. They make the back pages of every print media in Zim.”
ZIFA and the Zimbabwe Ministry of Sports have made promises, including training camp and early friendlies ahead of the Olympics, but there are still doubts as to how well the Mighty Warriors can prepare for Rio. ZIFA aren’t just broke, they’re in debt, and their failure to pay former national team coach Jose Claudinei Georgini Valinhos means the men’s team cannot participate in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers.
The Mighty Warriors played a friendly match against fellow Rio-bound South Africa, losing 1-0. According to Coach Mlauzi, plans are in place for further friendly matches against Ghana, Norway, Sweden and even New Zealand, but “everything hinges on finance.” Since their defeat to Banyana Banyana on May 15, the Mighty Warriors have yet to resume camping ahead of Rio, although FIFA’s website shows a scheduled friendly with Sweden. Only recently, the Ministry of Sports in a press statement further expressed concern about the state of women’s football in the country.
The latest from Zimbabwe suggests ZIFA have reformed under a different name in order to clear their debts. One hopes this will aid in the preparations the Mighty Warriors receive ahead of their Olympic debut.
But for now, they hold on to just one thing – belief.
“Though it is our first time to be playing at the Olympics, we are not going there to make up the numbers,” insists Felistas. “We know the kind of quality opposition that awaits us in Rio but nothing is impossible and we won’t be putting ourselves under immense pressure.”
“We are aware that a lot of scouts will be monitoring players out there and if we can have one or two players catching the eye of the scouts, it will be an endorsement of how our game has grown in recent times.”
Those “greener pastures” are one of the main reasons why African women footballers jostle for an appearance on the world stage. In truth, passion is what fuels women’s football in Africa, but to what end? It is quite difficult to combine academics and football in this terrain, which is why most players drop school for football. And when football is taken up as a career, one plays for pay, but when one almost always receives promises of money instead, how does one cope?
African players plying their trade outside the continent can attest to the fact that it pays more to play abroad – sometimes right from touchdown. It can’t be denied that African leagues – most of which are still developing in organisation and structure, and lack sponsorship – can’t measure up to those outside the continent.
Booking a ticket to Rio is not only a lifetime achievement for these Mighty Warriors, it’s also an opportunity of a lifetime. They can strut their stuff for the world to see, but most importantly, hoist Zimbabwe’s flag as high as they can.
Chirumhanzu wants the Mighty Warriors to show the world that, while they might be the underdogs, they still have potential for the game. But she also hopes their hearts don’t get broken:
“To say I am expecting victory will be asking for too much considering the teams they are up against. What I am only hoping is that they do not suffer defeats that are demoralizing, defeats that will make their experience in Rio forgettable because it is unfortunate that people will have memories of that forever and not of their qualification.”
For the love of the game and the quest to make a name, the Mighty Warriors have paid the price and made the sacrifice to be in Rio. Realistically, the game against Germany could be the beginning of the end of this glorious journey – they also face Canada, who made the quarterfinals of the 2015 World Cup, as well as a fast-rising Australia team – but as stated earlier, “This surely is not about holding up the coveted gold medal to their lips for a kiss, but about an opportunity they just cannot miss”.