Zimbabwe, dubbed “The Warriors” by home fans, return to the Africa Cup of Nations for the third time hoping to shrug off their minnows tag after failing to make it beyond the group stages in 2004 and 2006.
The southern African nation is pinning its dreams on players like Belgium-based striker Knowledge Musona, who is leading scorer at top-flight side KV Oostende, and South Africa-based Khama Billiat who had a strong season at Mamelodi Sundowns.
Zimbabwe, who rank 102 in the world and 29 in Africa, won four of their six qualifying matches for the top African football showcase in Gabon next month despite being dogged by financial woes.
The country’s football association is saddled with debt and has at times failed to pay players’ allowances and often relies on well-wishers to cover wages for players and coaches.
An economic crisis and cash shortage has seen football match attendance figures plummeting.
Last year the country was expelled from the 2018 World Cup preliminary competition over non-payment of a $67 000 debt to former coach Jose Claudinei Georgini, better known by his nickname Valinhos.
Zimbabwe face formidable opponents in Group B, which includes Senegal who are perched on the top rung on the continent, and Tunisia and Algeria who are third and fifth respectively.
NOT A PUNCH BAG
Veteran Harare-based football analyst Stanley Katsande said the team has the potential to shine at the 16-team tournament despite being counted as continental underdogs.
“Zimbabwe had a very impressive record during the qualifiers,” Katsande told AFP.
“They may not be the group winner but the boys will definitely leave a huge impression at the tournament despite being lowly-ranked.
“While many think they will be the punching bag of the group, I am not expecting an early flight back home. They face the best teams on the continent and they certainly need to concentrate 110 percent.”
Nigel Matongorere, sports editor at the Daily News newspaper, said coach Callisto Pasuwa hoped to employ tactics to beat “African giants who do have their flaws and weaknesses.”
“In their previous two appearances, Zimbabwe failed to progress to the quarter-finals of the tournament,” Matongorere said in a review ahead of the tournament.
“This time around, Pasuwa has the players and with a bit of organisation coupled with luck, the Warriors can cause an upset.”
The team, combining local and foreign-based players, has been compared to the side which shone on the continent in the 1990s winning 13 matches unbeaten under German coach Reinhard Fabisch.
Key players heading to Gabon include striker Musona (KV Oostende, Belgium), midfielder Khama Billiat (Mamelodi Sundowns, South Africa), defender Costa Nhamoinesu (AC Sparta Praha, Czech Republic), striker Matthew Rusike (Helsingborgs IF, Sweden) and Tinotenda Kadewere (Djurgardens IF).