Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor
WHEN Joey Antipas decided he needed some first major reinforcements, in a desperate attempt to rescue the Warriors’ 2022 World Cup campaign, his first call went to Ovidy Karuru.
Many suggested this was because of the trust the duo could have established working together at Super Diski side Amazulu.
While, that could be right, the argument missed a very key period, 10 years ago, when the relationship between the coach and player started, and then flourished, culminating in the two parties establishing a very strong bond of trust.
It started under the shadow of a civil war, in the then capital of the rebel-held northern part of Cote d’Ivoire, when Karuru had just turned 20.
Antipas was then the assistant coach of the Warriors, who were under the guidance of Sunday Chidzambwa, at the inaugural African Nations Championship finals in 2009.
The Confederation of African Football leadership, under Cameroonian strongman, Issa Hayatou, had taken the first finals of the new tournament, reserved for only home-based players, to Cote d’Ivoire, in a gamble for football to try and bring peace to the country.
And, the Warriors found themselves based in Yamoussoukro, the ceremonial capital, right in the heart of the rebel-held northern part of the country with their group matches being played in Bouake, the second largest city in Cote d’Ivoire, and the capital of the rebels.
In 2006, Didier Drogba and his Elephants – desperate to use the team’s popularity across the country as a tool to unite their war-torn nation – had taken their 2006 AFCON qualifier against Madagascar to Bouake as part of their efforts to strengthen the peace process.
And, three years later, the Warriors were playing the CHAN finals’ matches in the same city but security concerns, among the organisers and the hosts, still ran high the team didn’t stay in Bouake, where they played their matches, but in Yamoussoukro, about 100kms away.
Their trips to Bouake, on match days, would see some elaborate security measures being effected, with their team bus accompanied by scores of soldiers in army vehicles, while the tension, inside the stadium, was always clear during those group matches.
But, for Chidzambwa and Antipas, two players – midfielder Karuru, who had just waved goodbye to his teenage years a month earlier, and striker Phillip Marufu, who had spent the better part of his career at Airforce of Zimbabwe side Chapungu – appeared unfazed by all the fears related to this dangerous adventure.
And, in the first group match on February 23, 2009, Karuru thrust the Warriors into the lead after just five minutes against Ghana, and Marufu doubled the lead in the 36th minute with a typical poacher’s strike.
Abdul Ayew, the son of Ghanaian legend Abedi Pele with his first wife Rahim before his second wife, Maha, gave him his two other football-playing sons – Andre and Jordan – struck twice in Bouake to rescue a point for the Black Stars in a pulsating 2-2 draw.
Three days later, again in Bouake, Marufu struck for the Warriors to cancel out Tresor Mputu’s goal for the Democratic Republic of Congo, in a 1-1 draw.
A goalless draw against Libya, in their final group game, where defender Gilbert Banda missed a great chance, meant the Warriors were eliminated, without losing a match, while the two teams that had also failed to beat them in their group – Ghana and the DRC – eventually made the final.
For Antipas, watching from a front-row seat as Chidzambwa’s assistant, the impression Karuru made during those three matches, stuck with the coach.
And, it was further strengthened when they worked together at South African Premiership side Amazulu.
Antipas didn’t succeed Chidzambwa, when he left the Warriors the following year, but he did replace the veteran gaffer this time around, when Mhofu quit the national team two months ago, after the 2019 AFCON finals in Egypt.
Although he is only on a caretaker arrangement, until the end of the year, ZIFA president, Felton Kamambo, said Antipas would be considered, if he applies, for the role of the substantive coach whose identity will be revealed in January.
‘‘Actually, as the one who is in charge right now, he has some sort of advantage over others because he is working with the team and his results could help him,’’ said Kamambo.
Those results, of course, include doing well in all the competitions he is taking charge of, including the CHAN tourney, where Antipas has some unfinished business dating 10 years ago when he was in the trenches with the team, as assistant coach, at that inaugural finals in Cote d’Ivoire.
“It is a very competitive tournament to play in and it will be good for the local Warriors to make the final,” said Antipas.
“As you know, given the exposure involved, it’s a big stage for our players to participate in and market themselves.’’
It’s something Antipas knows because, 10 years ago, after just two group games in Bouake, he saw Karuru make a huge impression on some French scouts, who were looking for fresh African talent, and was signed by US Boulogne to start a five-year romance with football in that country. Of the players who started that first 2009 CHAN finals group match against Ghana, 10 years ago, seven of them – goalkeeper Willard Manyatera, Thomas Sweswe, Zhaimu Jambo, Oscar Machapa, Carrington Gomba, Cuthbert Malajila and Karuru – played in foreign leagues at some point in their careers.
Guthrie Zhokinyi, Gilbert Banda, Pride Tafirenyika and Marufu are the ones who have spent their careers on the domestic front.
Midfielder Thabani Kamusoko, who was introduced as a substitute in that match against the Ghanaians, has already played in Tanzania and Zambia and recently scored the equaliser for his Zambian side, Zesco, in a pulsating 1-1 draw against Young Africans in a CAF Champions League match.
Kamusoko also featured in both legs of the World Cup qualifier against Somalia, which means, Antipas has not yet forgotten those who were with him in that CHAN adventure, under the shadow of a civil war, in Abidjan 10 years ago.