Robson Sharuko in Cairo, Egypt
FINALLY, we are here, for everything our hearts have desired, for our ultimate Mother of all Battles, for the inevitability of the brutality of our examination in the belly of the beast, for what some claim is the kiss of death, but what we believe could be the hug of life.
It all explodes tonight at 10PM at the Cairo International Stadium.
A football match bigger than just a game, the kind of matches that bring a nation, not just Zimbabwe, but also Egypt, to a standstill, an epic showdown bigger than anything these Warriors have ever faced in recent years, will ever face in this group, and might ever face, possibly, in this tournament.
Eighty thousand screaming fans, most of them singing in the corner of the hosts, crammed inside the Cairo International Stadium, on this very special occasion when their Pharaohs return to their spiritual home after years of wandering in the wilderness of Alexandria, the kind of occasion that makes hearts beat faster and emotions explode inside the body.
Mohamed Salah coming back to play in his city, not as that forward who struggled at Chelsea, but now as the spearhead of the Liverpool team that has just conquered Europe again, for the sixth time, and now firmly established as the best African footballer of his generation.
That he continues to dominate that landscape, in an era where Senegalese forward, Sadio Mane, has taken his game to great heights, is a reminder of just how good Salah has been, how dominant he has been and how his incredible talent has cast a spell over the game on the continent.
And, tonight it will be the Warriors’ turn to try and stop Salah; something which the Tottenham defence failed in the recent Uefa Champions League final, something which the Roma defence also failed in the same tourney and, something which the Congolese defence failed in the last game the Pharaohs played at home.
That was nine months ago, a dream for a return to the World Cup, for the first time in 29 years, was drifting away for the Pharaohs and being replaced by a nightmare, with time virtually up on the clock and the match, which they needed to win in Alexandria, tied at 1-1.
Salah, of course, had thrust his Pharaohs ahead on the hour mark, but Arnold Bouka equalised with his first international goal, with only three minutes left on the clock, but the hosts won a penalty, they usually do here in the final minutes of big matches, and the Liverpool forward converted to spark wild celebrations in this country.
That earned each of the Pharaohs a cool US$85 000 as a bonus from the government and cemented his place as the ultimate Pharaohs hero, but some even say he is much more than that.
“Mo Salah, affectionately known as The King or The Pharaoh, personifies more than this. He’s hard-working and modest, without the same airs and graces as other football megastars,” commentator Bachir Amroune wrote in his article in which he described him as “the sun, god and a star”.
“In his homeland Egypt, everyone is talking about Mohamed Salah. In the last presidential election, Africa’s Footballer of the Year apparently won a million votes without even standing as a candidate.
“Because Mo Salah made his debut with the Egyptian Premier League club El Mokawloon SC (Arab Contractors’ Sporting Club) and only left his home country for Switzerland at the age of 20, his compatriots are especially proud of him.
“This is because unlike other Arab soccer stars, he learned the tools of his trade in Egypt and not at one of the top European clubs.”
Fate is a big part of this game and, the same Congolese side that was the last team the Pharaohs played here in an international game, are also the last team the Warriors played too, in a competitive game, just three months ago in Harare, winning the match 2-0 to book their place at this tournament.
The Warriors acknowledge they are underdogs, by a country mile. Their coach Sunday Chidzambwa said it loud and clear at his official media conference here on Wednesday and his captain Knowledge Musona conceded as much at the same address to the media.
“We very well know that Egypt are a very good team and we are the underdogs, but since we are one of the 24 teams who have qualified, there is nothing that can stop us from making a surprise,” said Chidzambwa.
“These things happen in football, but I think the best team that day is going to win the match.”
The Warriors know they need far more than the collective efforts of their talents for them to come out of this match with a positive result, including even the possibility that they will meet the Pharaohs on their off-day and weighed down by the huge expectations from the crowd and the country.
The big fear is that the Warriors could wilt under the huge pressure exerted by the Cairo crowd. It’s something many of them have never seen before and, crucially, with temperatures hovering over 33°C during the time of the match, it will be a huge test for the likes of Alec Mudimu and Tendai Darikwa.
The duo have built their professions playing in the winter of English football and, now, they have to find a way to adjust to the punishing heat of Cairo in a match that will have some water breaks to refresh the battered bodies of the players.
Musona is key, has always been for the Warriors, is always for the Warriors and, while he doesn’t have the superstar status of Salah, he is a demon, an unstoppable machine, when he wears those gold and green colours of his country.
“The last time, (against Egypt) I scored here and we lost 2-1 and then I scored in Harare and we lost 4-2, but we have a different team now,” said Musona.
That goal here came in a 2014 World Cup qualifier, which, just like the Pharaohs’ last match against Niger last September, remained locked at 1-1 until then, and now, the hosts got a last-gasp penalty which they converted for their victory.
If the Warriors play as well as they did back then, and if Musona scores once again, just as he did back then, this could be an interesting duel between the favourites and the rank underdogs.
But, the reality is that the Pharaohs usually win here; 6-0 against Niger, 4-1 against Eswatini, 3-2 against Tunisia, 1-0 against Tanzania, without Salah in this game, and 3-1 over Guinea, with Salah turning on a man-of-the-match show; in their last six home games.
“We know it’s going to be a big game, strong opponents, opening game and they almost never lose at home, we know it’s a tough game,’’ said Musona.
“But, we are also ready, as underdogs, to show the country, and the world, that we are not here to just make up the numbers, but to fight and show what we are capable of.”
The world is watching.
Edmore Sibanda, Tendai Darikwa, Ronald Pfumbidzai, Alec Mudimu, Teenage Hadebe, Danny Phiri, Nyasha Munetsi, Marvelous Nakamba, Knowledge Musona, Khama Billiat, Nyasha Mushekwi