IT is 28 years since Zimbabwe’s most well-known sporting brothers — a step ahead of the cricketing Flowers, or the tennis-playing Blacks — commanded what is now looked on as the nation’s finest era in its most popular sport — football.
Mention the “Dream Team” in Zimbabwe and you put the young Ndlovus upfront, a combative back four and one of the country’s most fascinating goalkeepers, Bruce Grobbelaar.
The Dream Team have an out-of-the-ordinary status, although they would fall just short of realising their ambitions.
Consequently, they had to be associated with the energy sapping “So Near, Yet So Far” story after narrowly missing World Cup and Africa
Cup of Nations dances after putting up some top-drawer performances in the two highly praised campaigns.
The tag Dream Team would reportedly first be hung on them as a moniker in 1992, after US basketball team, an assembly of NBA superstars that reportedly plunged into Barcelona Olympics where their flawless display discarded the pretence of amateurism.
In year 1992, a skinny but nimble-footed Peter “Nsukuzonke” Ndlovu and Grobbelaar then with English Premier Soccer League sides Coventry City and Liverpool respectively were to introduce to the Dream Team’s adventure, an opening match of the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.
Grobbelaar had reportedly not played for Zimbabwe for a decade — partly because of a law passed by the then government of the late President Robert Mugabe which forbade its citizens from holding both a Zimbabwean passport and a British one.
Zimbabwe’s new head coach, the late Reinhard Fabisch, had made it clear he wanted his best goalkeeper in the team. This was a fixture in which The Jungleman would make his comeback special.
Zimbabwe were to begin their qualifying campaign for the 1994 Cup of Nations against their neighbours South Africa, who would be competing for the first time ever in Africa as a Fifa-authorised national team after decades of anti-apartheid sanctions.
It was a South Africa team endorsed by the president-in-waiting, the late Nelson Mandela, a starting 11, of black, white and mixed-race South Africans, symbolic of their Rainbow Nation.
For Zimbabwe, the inclusion of Grobbelaar — a man who once fought as a Rhodesian army conscript in the civil war against the late Mugabe’s freedom fighters — made its own statement about Zimbabwe’s diversity.
And according to www.theblizzard.co.uk, a football writers’ blog on a sunny winter day at the giant Harare’s National Sports Stadium, the Dream Team “gained its pull power at a time Bafana Bafana thought they were the big storyline”.
Into the build-up to the match, the late Willard “Mashinkila Khumalo”, a former Northlea High School student who boasted of a good command of English, reportedly gave a gem of a quote when the media asked his opinion of Mzansi’s then midfield magician Doctor Khumalo, a gifted player who turned out for one of the most followed Mzansi football outfits Kaizer Chiefs.
Khumalo of Zimbabwe suggested Khumalo of South Africa risked having to “change his name from “Doctor” to “Nurse”.
In front of a crowd of more than 40 000, Zimbabwe demolished South Africa. They went 2-0 up thanks to goals from Vitalis “Digital” Takawira and Rahman Gumbo in the opening 20 minutes, and were 4-1 winners.
Nsukuzonke, still a teenager, got the other two goals.
Interestingly, Zimbabwe and South Africa are set to clash in the 2022 World Cup qualifiers 23 years after they met on the fateful day at the National Sports Stadium where 13 fans died in a stampede.
South African football legend Mark Fish, who was recently in the country as part of the Caf inspection team that assessed the National Sports Stadium and Barbourfields’ suitability for the 2022 World Cup qualifiers that will commence in early October together with Derek Blackensee, was reminded by the latter of the match South Africa lost 1-4 to Zimbabwe after they had been re-admitted by Fifa in 1992.
“Derek was reminding me of when we got readmitted into world football in 1992. Zimbabwe beat Bafana Bafana 4-1 and we were called 4×4. Luckily, I wasn’t part of that generation, I came little bit afterwards . . . ,” said Fish.
That was not a mean achievement for Fabisch and his charges. Over the months the Dream Team would aim their volleys at giants of African football as they picked their way through the demanding calendar of events.
Besides the Cup of Nations qualifiers, there was the qualifying and gruelling campaign for the USA World Cup, with its two tiers of group phases, with only the top team going through at each stage.
In the course of those, Zimbabwe would be required to keep their poise on some demanding away trips — notably to Angola, in the first World Cup mini-league, on a blistering January day during the Angolan civil war.
“Going into Luanda, we had to circle all the way down into the airport because someone was shooting at planes,” Grobbelaar once recalled.
“In the stadium, they must have had 80 000 fans. It was only supposed to hold about 50 000,” the former Liverpool goalie further recalled.
The Dream Team plucked out a one-all draw and this was three weeks after they had accounted for the Pharaohs of Egypt, a spike on the Dream Team’s highway as significant as the reverberating rout of Bafana Bafana.
Nsukuzonke’s step over and left foot hard drive for the first goal in the 2-1 win had been the highlight.
It set up an inspiring conclusion to the group, with Zimbabwe needing a point in Cairo to go through to the next phase and eliminate the Pharaohs. By the end of an intense, rowdy night, Fabisch had a cut to his head and Grobbelaar had also been struck by a missile. Egypt had won 2-1.
Zimbabwe, reportedly armed with television footage, appealed to Fifa. The world football governing body’s record on righting supposed wrongs caused by lax security, particularly in Africa, was a little chaotic. Yet the Dream Team were awarded a replay of the match, to be played in Lyon, France.
The Dream Team had one of finest nights as they dazzled to a 0-0 draw that was vividly celebrated in Zimbabwe and abroad.
“The nation clung to the idea of the Dream Team and the road to the USA and to what we felt might be our first time at an Africa Cup of Nations. When we played those qualifiers we started to put together an unbeaten run. It is those days that brought back some of the joy of Independence. I think that’s partly why the nickname Dream Team stuck to the Warriors’ Class of 1990s,” said Agent “Ajira” Sawu, one of Zimbabwe’s football greats whose voyage with the Dream Team cannot be over emphasised.
Those were the days when the late Benjamin Nkonjera, diminutive in frame but a giant in soul, would turn on a majestic performance, in the heart of the Warriors’ midfield. Glory days in which Ephraim Chawanda would rise, like the Rock of Gibraltar, to marshal the defence with a ruthlessness that suffocated the opponents and provided the ultimate protection for Bruce Grobbelaar and gave us a foundation on which we would build our search for victory.
Zimbabwe’s Cup of Nations qualifying campaign would by the middle of 1993 be eclipsed by a bigger story. When Zambia came to Harare for the final group match, needing a draw to pip the Dream Team for a place at the finals, they had the sympathy and support of the world.
Three months earlier the Chipolopolo squad travelling to a match in Senegal had been killed in a plane crash. Against Zimbabwe, a hastily assembled Chipolopolo side fell a goal behind. The Dream Team were on course for their first-ever major tournament until Zambia captain Kalusha Bwalya nodded the ball home past Grobbelaar 11 minutes from time.
The road to the USA remained open. To add to the scalp of Egypt, there would be the cutting down to size of Cameroon, Africa’s most visible football power thanks to Italia 90, beaten 1-0 in Harare.
But Zimbabwe had dropped points with a defeat in Guinea, the losers in their mini-league. After the penultimate set of fixtures of the second group phase, Zimbabwe found themselves again one win shy of the target.
When the Dream Team marched into the cauldron of Yaounde’s Stade Ahmadou Ahidjo on 4 July 1993, to be met by a screaming mob of 71 160 fans baying for their blood, Fabisch and his band of Warriors were just 90 minutes away from writing football’s greatest fairytale, to be one of the trio of African sides at the 1994 World Cup.
For a while, the dream flickered on. When, five minutes into the second-half, the late Adam “Adamski” Ndlovu scored and silence came over the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium.
But dreams, sometimes, don’t come true and the Warriors crashed to a 1-3 defeat, with Fabisch accusing the referees of aiding the hosts with questionable officiating. Once they added a third, Zimbabwe were broken. On the touchline, Fabisch, a man who would command Zimbabweans to sing because he wasn’t hearing the noise from the stands, started throwing US dollar bills around, implying the referee, who had given a contentious early penalty in favour of Cameroon, had been bought.
Zimbabwe’s Dream Team had been 11 minutes from a first ever Cup of Nations. They had been one win from reaching the USA finals.
They had neither.
Zimbabwe’s wait for a first appearance at a Cup of Nations lasted into the 21st century. Economic crisis meant Zimbabwe withdrew as designated hosts of the African Cup of Nations in 2000.
When, nearly quarter of a century after independence, Zimbabwe finally qualified for a Nations Cup, in 2004, the iconic Ndlovu brothers — Adam and Peter — were still upfront for the Warriors.
However, the label Dream Team had not accompanied them to Tunisia.
Nor were the Zimbabwe who reached the 2006 tournament in Egypt — where Nsukuzonke won his 100th cap before another group stage exit — deemed worthy of comparison with the sides of the early 1990s.