Eddie Chikamhi Senior Sports Reporter
THE Confederation of African Football yesterday finally bowed to pressure and postponed the 2021 AFCON qualifiers set for this month amid concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.
The CAF leaders this week had given the hint the matches would go ahead as scheduled but, with more countries reporting new cases of coronavirus, they were left with no option but to postpone the matches.
This means that Zimbabwe’s back-to-back qualifiers against Algeria will not be played this month.
It’s also a relief to ZIFA, who had been struggling to find a home for the Warriors to host Algeria, after CAF placed a blanket ban on all the local stadiums from hosting international matches.
The new developments, given that the next international break will be in June, provide the country with a chance to work on both the National Sports Stadium and Barbourfields and present them to CAF as facilities suitable to host the match against Algeria.
ZIFA had also hinted that they would have required a US$200 000 budget to host the Desert Foxes in South Africa.
‘‘Following the growing concerns of the COVID-19 virus and the declaration by the World Health Organisation (WHO) describing it as pandemic, CAF has decided to postpone the following competitions until further notice:
Total AFCON 2021 Qualifiers: Match Day 3 and 4 of the qualifiers scheduled for March 25-31, 2020;
FIFA Women’s U-20 World Cup Qualifiers: scheduled for March 20-22, 2020, and March 27-29, 2020;
Total Women’s AFCON 2020 Qualifiers: scheduled for April 8-14, 2020.
‘‘A new schedule shall be announced in due time.’’
Warriors coach, Zdravko Logarusic, had yesterday announced his squad for the matches against Algeria.
But, doubts still persisted about the availability of most of his European-based players, because of the travel restrictions to curb the coronavirus pandemic.
The Algerian and Zimbabwean Governments had also questioned the need to have the matches played amid this global health crisis.
The Algerians, too, were unlikely to be allowed to enter South Africa, which is batting to contain the outbreak of the virus.
The technical team had retained most of the players, who represented the country in the opening two matches, against Botswana and Zambia last year in a glimpse of the players the Croat wants to use for national duty.
Skipper Knowledge Musona had been named to lead a contingent of eight European-based players, who included Aston Villa midfielder Marvelous Nakamba, Alec Mudimu (Moldova), Marshall Munetsi (France), Teenage Hadebe (Turkey), goalkeeper Martin Mapisa (Spain) and Tino Kadewere (France), who has lit the French Ligue 2 with his goal-scoring prowess.
The technical team had also extended the call to England-based striker Macauley Bonne, who was ruled out the last time because of a medical condition.
However, even as the team was released, it was clear the European teams were not going to release their players because of the travel restrictions imposed by Governments and health authorities.
In Belgium, where Musona plies his trade at KAS Eupen, league games have been suspended after the country recorded 556 cases of coronavirus and three deaths.
The Belgian National Security Council decided to take far-reaching measures by declaring a state of emergency over the entire country.
Under the new emergency measures, all recreational and sporting events will be cancelled or postponed, while public places like restaurants, bars, cafés and discos have been ordered to shut from midnight yesterday until April 3.
Schools, meanwhile, will be closed as of Monday, with a day-care service maintained for working parents with no other alternatives.
Midfielder Nakamba has also suffered a similar fate after the English Premiership matches were suspended until April 3.
Bonne also plays in England at Charlton Athletic. Spain, where goalkeeper Mapisa plies his trade at Zamora CF, may also be affected by the strict travel restrictions in the country after 3 000 cases were reported.
But Zimbabwe were confident, if the matches had gone ahead, of getting their South Africa-based contingent, who make the bulk of the squad.
There were eight players based in South Africa in the Warriors squad, including Khama Billiat, Knox Mutizwa, Butholezwe Ncube, Ovidy Karuru, Kuda Mahachi, Charlton Mashumba and goalkeeper Elvis Chipezeze.
Defender Divine Lunga had also returned to the fold after missing the previous qualifiers against Zambia and Botswana.
Tafadzwa Kutinyu, who has been involved in the CAF Champions League football with Guinea giants Horoya AC, had also bounced back into the team.
But, there were no places for Thabani Kamusoko, Cliff Moyo, Kelvin Moyo and Highlanders forward Prince Dube, who had also been dropped from the CHAN squad.
Zimbabwe were scheduled to play Algeria on March 26 at the Mustapha Tchaker Stadium in Blida with the return match set for South Africa on March 29.
The novel coronavirus, which was first detected in China late last year, has wreaked havoc mostly in Europe and Asia and has hit sport hard after several events were either cancelled or postponed.
Zimbabwe’s opponents Algeria have also borne the brunt in Africa after 24 cases were recorded. Algeria has become one of the hotspots in Africa and the Government of Zimbabwe has spoken against sending the team to the North African country at this point.
Algeria lead the group with six points while Zimbabwe are in second place after two rounds of play.
The back-to-back clashes, should they go ahead, are likely to be decisive as Zambia, without a point, and Botswana (one point), also engage in duels to keep their hopes alive.
Apart from the coronavirus threat, Zimbabwe were also facing a headache on their travel arrangements because of the spacing of the back-to-back matches.
Loga’s first Warriors squad
Goalkeepers: Martin Mapisa (Zamora CF), Elvis Chipezeze (Baroka)
Defenders: Partson Jaure (Dynamos), Alec Mudimu (FC Sheriff Tiraspol), Teenage Hadebe (Yeni Malatyaspor), Divine Lunga (Golden Arrows), Ian Nekati (Chicken Inn), Peter Muduhwa (Highlanders).
Midfielders: Marshall Munetsi (Stade de Reims), Tafadzwa Kutinyu (Horoya AC), Butholezwe Ncube (Amazulu), Marvelous Nakamba (Aston Villa), Kudakwashe Mahachi (SuperSport United), Ovidy Karuru (Stellenbosch), Knowledge Musona (K.A.S Eupen), Khama Billiat (Kaizer Chiefs)
Strikers: Tinotenda Kadewere (Le Havre AC), Charlton Mashumba (Polokwane City), Knox, Mutizwa (Golden Arrows), Macauley Bonne (Charlton Athletic)