Conquering History: The Warrior’s Way

Amidst political unrest, hunger strike and police brutality, the Zimbabwean women’s national football team wrote a new page in their nation’s history by qualifying for the Rio Olympics 2016. Subhajit Sengupta at Goalden Times looks back at the journey of the Mighty Warriors from a deprived land to far west to Brazil.

Last time the world talked about Zimbabwean football was during the mid-weeks of December 2012 when the Ndlovu brothers met a fatal accident which led to the older brother Adam Ndlovu’s death. The two key members of “The Dream Team” during the 90’s had a folkloric status but they fell just short of realizing the aspirations they had sustained over the period of 15 months in trying to reach the World Cup of 1994. One of them was dead now and that was it. In a few days the Zimbabwean football again slipped out of international media’s focus, however the nation, obsessed with the beauty of the game, never stopped dreaming.

The Mighty Warriors

Dr Thomas Wayne famously said “Why do we fall? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up”, the story of Zimbabwean football follows the same theme. Football in Zimbabwe reached its peak during late 80’s to mid 90’s. Peter Ndlovu and Bruce Grobbelaar’s success and experience in English football made their national team a surprise package in the qualifying campaign for the African Nations Cup and World Cup qualification draws but despite some eye-catching performances against South Africa and Egypt in the Cup of Nations they failed to qualify for the World Cup of 1994. That was their best ever opportunity to qualify for the World Cup and with that, men’s football never flourished in Zimbabwe for the next two decades. The politically unstable country led by ZANU–PF (Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front) only added more uncertainty to Zimbabwe’s football future.

In April 2016, Zimbabwe again hit the international football headlines and created a buzz in social networks. Videos of police brutality amidst peaceful citizens’ protests and other scenes of turmoil simultaneously touched hearts of people around the globe. Twitter erupted with #ThisFlag, #ShutDownZimbabwe2016 and #BeatThePot hashtags. The ZANU-PF led government, which has been ruling since the country’s independence in 1980, has been feeding the citizens a facade of dreams. Issues like corruption within the government, workers not being paid salaries for months, police operating as government puppet had turned the country into a ruin.

The Mighty Warriors
#BeatThePot protest on 16 July 2016, at the City Hall in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.
Photo by Zinyange Auntony.

Amid all these hazards, they never stopped dreaming about waving the national flag on an international stage, making their country proud. They are “The Mighty Warriors”. That’s the name used to refer to the Zimbabwe Women’s National Football Team. To say the least, these warriors have taken Zimbabwe further forward on the global football map during last 15 years than what the dominating men of their country have managed in the past 77 years. The women’s team was first drawn for the 1991 edition of the African Women’s Championship but the glamour of men’s football and lack of interest and funding towards women’s football from Zimbabwe Football Association forced them to withdraw from the tournament without playing a single match. They came back stronger in 2000 and played their first international match on 11th November against Uganda which ended in a 2-2 draw. The warriors finished fourth in the 2000 African Women’s Championship, their first international tournament. Then again they qualified in 2002 and 2004 but failed to make much impact, finishing at the bottom of their group in both the tournaments. But last October, The Mighty Warriors made history as the country’s first team of either gender to earn a global soccer tournament berth. Their road to Rio de Janeiro had more twists and turns than most Martin Scorsese movies.

The Mighty Warriors
Zimbabwe’s Mighty Warriors. (Source: Kirsty Coventry’s official Facebook page.)

The Mighty Warriors started to raise hope when they beat their neighbor and eternal rival Zambia by away goals earlier in the qualifying campaign and the player who scored the decisive away goal was their lethal striker Rudo Neshamba who’s also a student of journalism in the Harare College.

Although it may sound praiseworthy and a bit astonishing for a full-time professional footballer, at the same time it is just the tip of the iceberg of problems facing every single woman associated with the team. Welcome to the land of corrupt politicians and deprived citizens.

Back in July 2015, after a clutch of well-fought matches in the knockout stages of the Olympic qualifying campaign, the Mighty Warriors had to forfeit the away game of the first leg of the penultimate round against Ivory Coast in Abidjan. The Zimbabwean soccer federation flagrantly announced that they have no funds to afford even the airline tickets for the team. The Mighty Warriors came on the verge of disqualification when the officials awarded a 3-0 win to Ivory Coast. Then suddenly fortune turned in their favor quite unexpectedly. In the return leg, Ivory Coast didn’t show up in Harare as their own federation started crying poverty and eventually withdrew from the tournament hence Zimbabwe was awarded the victory and a last gasp of hope to qualify for the Olympics.

Glory for the Warriors was so close and yet so far, especially when they had to face the Lionesses of Africa in their final match of the qualifying campaign. It was the vastly experienced and 47th ranked team in the FIFA Women’s World Ranking Cameroon who was standing between Zimbabwe, the 93rd ranked team,and their first major international tournament.

Cameroon earned a comfortable 2-1 victory in the first leg in Yaounde. In the return leg, Cameroon only needed a draw but the Mighty Warriors refused to step back against the African powerhouse. It was eight minutes of magical football and it was that girl again, Rudo Neshamba. Her early goal in Harare put Zimbabwe on global football map after a long time. They outmuscled the Cameroonians. Luck had favoured them big time. Despite not playing a single minute of football in the third round and winning the second and final round of the tournament on the virtue of away goal, they were going to participate in the Rio Olympics, 2016. A journey of thousand miles, of sweat, sacrifice and few smiles all seemed worth now.

The Mighty Warriors
Mighty Warriors hotshot striker Rudo Neshamba wheels away
after scoring the priceless goal against Cameroon at Rufaro

“It has been a long and arduous journey indeed, but we pulled through against all odds. It feels good to be the heroine, the lady whose goal wrote a new piece of history.” Neshamba recounted. What makes this journey even more incredible is that Zimbabwe has no professional women’s league, and its national team depends on an unreliable trickle down of FIFA funds and external sponsorship; the inconsistency directly impacting both players and coaches, who frequently go unpaid. Unlike the affluent nations, the Zimbabwean government does not help fund youth, women’s programs. Earlier this year when the team also qualified for the 2016 Africa Cup of Nations, each player reportedly received $50, while the men, who also qualified for AFCON, are said to have received $1,000 apiece as a token of appreciation from the government; just another example of blatant gender discrimination in Zimbabwe. This is just one side of the whole story.

The other side of it came under the sun in February, 2016 when Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean President celebrated his 92nd birthday crammed with lavish parades, concerts and 92 Kgs of cake. The total cost reportedly came between $800,000 and $1 million. The root of mismanagement of money in Zimbabwe goes much deeper than sports. Chris Aston, a farmer who expatriated to Zambia after his land was seized in Zimbabwe, said: “The government is struggling to survive having firstly destroyed the productive capacity of the country, then systematically looted whatever they could lay their hands on. There is no money to pay the civil servants; there is no money to pay the police force. Finding money for women to play soccer?”

The government is struggling to survive having firstly destroyed the productive capacity of the country, then systematically looted whatever they could lay their hands on. There is no money to pay the civil servants; there is no money to pay the police force. Finding money for women to play soccer?

The future of women’s football in Zimbabwe looks gloomy, to say the least. No player can depend on the game alone to pay the bills. The team comprised players who are employed by the army, the police, the security sector and other jobs. Yet their passion for the beautiful game binds them together in the same dream. Mavis, the young midfielder is certainly their face of passion. She came to live with her SOS family in Bindura when she was one year old. The toddler was found by the roadside and brought to the SOS Children’s Village by a stranger. Mavis was on the pitch every night till it was too dark to see one’s hand. But the girl had plans and she practiced with a passion and now here she was, representing her country in the Rio Olympics.

The Mighty Warriors
Mavis is on her way to participate in the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games

Having drawn in a group with two times world champion Germany and vastly experienced sides like Australia and Canada, both quarter-finalists in the latest edition of the Women’s World Cup, their luck ran out quite early in the tournament. They conceded 15 goals and scored only 3 and finished at the bottom of the group. The end of this dream run did not finish with a piece of silverware but what is more important is that the Warriors have set a legacy and to quote Chibuogwu Nnadiegbulam: “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”. The government would change someday, the political unrest, corruption, hunger strike and protest campaigns would give way to peace and sanity will prevail. But something which will last forever is this journey of the Mighty Warriors, the real “Dream Team” of Zimbabwe. They will leave encouragement for generations to come and a lesson to learn:

“Well if you can’t get what you love
You learn to love the things you’ve got
If you can’t be what you want
You learn to be the things you’re not
If you can’t get what you need
You learn to need the things that stop you dreaming”

~ Mike Rosenberg