By Robson Sharuko
A TROOP of Warriors with a reputation of choking on the road, stalked by a match-fixing ghost that defiantly refuses to go away and backed by a passionate nation, which continues to see light in all this darkness, plunge into a defining battle today in search of purity and three priceless points which carry their weight in gold.
For the past two miserable weeks, the Warriors' brand, which King Peter Ndlovu helped take to the lofty heights of the Nations Cup festival, has been battered by a damaging scandal, the kind of which would make those 13 martyrs -- who perished in that horror stampede at the National Sports Stadium in 2000 -- turn in their graves.
Against that depressing backdrop, the Warriors today plunge into some form of a cleansing ceremony at the Somhlolo National Stadium -- itself an ironic venue for such a quest for purity given the rituals that have been performed there, including an incident in 2009 when some people ripped off the artificial turf to insert magic charms.
The damage, which still remains pronounced on the goal and centre areas of this compact stadium, is a reminder of the depths that some people are prepared to go, in their quest to write success stories and provides an ironic ugliness to the sport that Brazilian legend Pele called the world's most beautiful game.
For the Warriors, the mission is simple, if ever there is anything like that in football.
They have to win today's game and take control of Group L, but even more importantly, destroy any conspiracies, fed by the ugly off-the-field events of the past two weeks and cheer the spirits of their long-suffering fans who have backed them through tough times and loved them, even when they gave these supporters very little in return.
It's Operation Restore Faith and there is no question that the Warriors will be under intense scrutiny from their fans, every mistake debated, every poor pass cursed, every wrong move questioned and, if there was a time for them to show that they can be the heroes that their fans have always demanded, men who will sacrifice life and limb for the cause of their nation on the football pitch, then this is the hour for them to be counted.
The hour when real Warriors are separated from pretenders, the hour when real men are separated from little boys and captain Willard Katsande knows that there is much more at stake today than just the full set of points that will see them open a three-point lead at the top of Group L with a home game against Swaziland at home on Easter Monday.
Every member of Callisto Pasuwa's men in Swaziland today knows that he carries a heavy load for his nation and today's assignment is not an ordinary one and how they express themselves will have a huge bearing, not only in the destiny of their campaign where they want to end 10 years of failure in these qualifiers, but in restoring the bond of trust, with some of their fans, which could have been shaken by the ugly off-the-field events which exploded in the past two weeks.
"We will go out there and play our hearts out for the nation . . . nothing more," Warriors star forward, Khama Billiat, who is one of the team's leading lights, told The Herald.
"If everyone is on top of their game I am sure we can win away. So we just have to go there and fight for that we come back with a positive result.
"It's a big task."
Of course, it is!
Twelve years ago, when King Peter and his comrades had finally showed the world that we can dine with the aristocrats of African football by playing at the 2004 Nations Cup finals, playing Swaziland, even in their backyard, wouldn't have been a big task.
After all, those Warriors went to Mbabane and hammered Swaziland 5-0 in their backyard in a COSAFA Cup without even moving into second gear.
But times change and these are not the same hopeless Swazi footballers who, only three years ago, were going on a seven-match run, without scoring a goal, while being hammered, in one friendly match by the Pharaohs in Egypt, 10-0.
Somehow, they have found a way out of the darkness that used to envelope their game and that they went to Morocco and beat Guinea 2-1, in the first game of these Nations Cup qualifiers, provided the evidence -- if any was needed -- that the days when they were the whipping boys of African football have long passed.
A 2-2 draw against Malawi in their second game at home showed the two goals they scored against Guinea were not a fluke and, in their backyard, they have become stubborn opponents who will fight all the way.
But, for many African pundits, their coming of age came when they held Nigeria's Super Eagles to a draw in their World Cup campaign recently, repeatedly threatening the West Africans in a tough battle, before going down 0-2 in the reverse encounter.
To get there, they had hammered Djibouti 8-1 on aggregate, including a 6-0 thrashing in the first leg and they are a team that certainly deserve their respect, something that Pasuwa found out when he took the Young Warriors through and could only battle their way to a draw.
Even their fans now believe and, while a 2014 World Cup qualifier against the DRC at the Somhlolo Stadium, which the Swazis lost 1-3 in November 2011, attracted just 785 supporters -- when the days were dark -- it's likely to be a full-house today.
If there is a concern for the Warriors then it could come from the compactness of the stadium where width, something that the likes of Billiat need to thrive in, is sacrificed and the artificial surface -- which has been battered for years -- is not the kind of football Mecca where the best games, of playing the ball on the ground, can be exhibited.
Costa Nhamoinesu, fresh from playing at the San Siro in the Europa Cup, might find that these are strange surfaces, but the towering defender, impressive when the Warriors battled Guinea, also knows that the best footballers are known by adjusting to any conditions.
Pasuwa has the personnel, the defensive solidity he needs, which is given a lot of shielding by Katsande and Danny Phiri, but -- as other Warriors have found out -- it's the creative arm of the team that has been our Achilles Heel since a certain Gidiza, also known as Ronald Sibanda, called time on his career.
It means that our offensive players like Billiat and Knowledge Musona have to keep drifting backwards to find possession and usually, the transition isn't easy and on small grounds like where they will play today, it's very, very difficult with a number of bodies usually in the line.
But, if there is one game that is crying out to be won, for the sake of restoring the Warriors' brand, then it's this game and -- back home -- their fans will be following every bit of the action live on television.
Booker T. Washington famously noted that "success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life (or in sport, in the case of our beloved Warriors) but by the obstacles which he has overcome."
Legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, who used to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, told us that "I hated every minute of training, but I said, 'don't quit, suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion'".
This is it, for the Warriors and the ball is in their court.
Source: All Africa