Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor
AMID the nerve-shredding tension in the stands on Friday night, a bizarre ritual was playing out on the Warriors bench in what represents a leap into the darkness for the senior national football team.
A team official brought a plastic container, filled with an unknown liquid, which he would open, every time the team was attacking, and then close the lid, on the occasions Botswana would venture forward.
By opening the container, the official said, or bizarrely believed, his magical powers would boost the Warriors chances of scoring.
And by closing it, when the Zebras powered forward, he believed the same magical powers would cast a spell on the visitors and prevent them from scoring.
Of course, Botswana didn’t score — despite carving out one or two good chances — so, even though it sounds laughable, he will give himself credit his magical powers worked.
But, then, the Warriors didn’t score either, after producing one of their worst performances at home in living memory, and this then exposes the charade of this weird act.
“It was like we were watching a Nigerian movie,” a source told The Herald.
“I don’t think anyone on that bench, and there were many professionals, has ever seen anything like that.
“It might sound like fiction but that’s exactly what was happening all the time and watching it, again and again, gave this impression that we have really sunk low as a team.
“If we have now believe that such Stone Age antics are what can make the difference between winning and losing then surely we have lost the plot.
“Of course, every African team has its rituals but this was the first time where I saw it being practiced on the bench in full view of all the players and the other technical staff members.
“I kept thinking, just as well the bulk of what you guys call the British Brigade didn’t come for this match because I kept wondering what impression they would have taken back about our team if they had watched all that.
“People have argued over this for years now — if all this belief in magic works, why is it an African team has never come even close to winning the World Cup?”
Maybe, it also explains the deep belief in the supernatural at the National Sports Stadium that night, there appeared to be a conviction something would just give in and the team would score.
And that probably explains the late changes, to try and inject life into a side that was playing below its usual standards, because there was a weird belief the bizarre magical powers would deliver.
Of course, they didn’t and the Warriors limped to a goalless draw against Botswana that represented a step back into a past when they were a very ordinary side which, for close to a decade between 2007 and 2016, failed to feature at the AFCON finals.
Admittedly, there is something different about derbies in football which just complicates matters and make them difficult games to win.
But, there is no question this was as bad a performance as the Warriors have displayed in recent years — lifeless, spiritless, powerless, direction-less.
It was so bad that Kuda Mahachi, introduced late in the match amid bedlam in the stands as the restless crowd cried out for changes after Plan A had horribly misfired, was the man-of-the-match.
For large parts of the game, coach Joey Antipas cast a lonely figure close to the touchline while his Botswana counterpart regularly chatted with his backroom staff as they tried to find solutions to their challenges.
A huge crowd poured into the giant stadium expecting to see their team start its latest AFCON qualifying campaign with a routine victory at the place their call home.
You can’t fault their expectations because, since this generation of players came of age about five years ago, it’s something they have been seeing with regularity.
In the previous qualifiers for a place in Egypt, Liberia were thrashed 0-3, Congo-Brazzaville lost 0-2 and only an own goal by central defender prevented the Warriors from a clean sweep at home as they settled for a 1-1 draw against the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In the 2017 AFCON qualifiers, Malawi were handed a 3-0 defeat at the giant stadium, Eswatini crashed to a 0-4 thrashing and only Guinea escaped with a draw in a 1-1 stalemate.
On both occasions the Warriors topped their group and easily qualified for the AFCON finals.
Not since Cape Verde came to Harare and forced a goalless draw on October 10, 2010 — amid the chaos brought in by the Tom Saintfiet saga — had the Warriors failed to score at home in an AFCON qualifier.
Even in their darkest moments, like in that 2015 preliminary round qualifier against Tanzania where a 2-2 draw ended their campaign, the Warriors still found a way to score — twice, in fact.
And, even when they were humbled at home, like in that 2014 World Cup qualifier against Egypt where Mohamed Salah scored a hat trick at the National Sports Stadium, the Warriors still found a way to score —twice, in fact, in a 2-4 defeat.
Which, then explains why this goalless draw against Botswana represented a new low for the team, a huge step backwards.
And it was worsened by a performance devoid of life they would have struggled to even beat Mushowani Stars on the night.
Something wasn’t done right.
This comical arrangement, where all its three coaches dumped camp on Wednesday, just two days before the match, to concentrate on their clubs’ domestic fixtures was suicidal.
And, that it was allowed to happen again on Saturday, when the team was supposed to be reviewing their shocking performance against Botswana, the areas that can be improved, is a graphic illustration that we are not taking this AFCON campaign seriously.
Maybe, we still believe the plastic container will wave its magic and everything will be well again — beginning with tomorrow’s match against Zambia in Lusaka.