Harare (AFP) – Zimbabwe have endured a troubled run-up to the Africa Cup of Nations, with players refusing to attend a farewell gala and missing scheduled flights to the tournament in a dispute over pay.
The “Warriors”, who have all now arrived in Gabon, look to overcome their minnows status in their opening Group B game on Sunday against Algeria, followed by clashes against Senegal and Tunisia.
Zimbabwe, ranked 103 in the world and 30 in Africa, return to the tournament hoping to improve on failing to make it beyond the group stage in 2004 and 2006.
Supporters are pinning their dreams on Belgium-based striker Knowledge Musona, the leading scorer at top-flight side KV Oostende, and South Africa-based Khama Billiat, who had a strong season at Mamelodi Sundowns.
Zimbabwe won four of their six qualifying matches for the African football showcase despite dire financial woes.
The country’s economy has been shattered under long-time President Robert Mugabe, and its debt-saddled football association has at times been unable to pay players.
Last week, several players sat in a hotel corridor outside a farewell dinner in a protest over pay rates and then missed their flight to Cameroon for a friendly on the way to Gabon.
After hectic negotiations, the full team eventually made it to Cameroon — drawing 1-1 — and officials say that the money problems have been smoothed out with an injection of cash.
– ‘We will surprise everyone’ –
“I can confirm that we wired that money to each player. And the total amount is $550,000,” Zimbabwe Football Association (ZIFA) member Philemon Machana told the Herald newspaper on Friday.
“For appearing for the three matches, it is $5,000 per match, that was the agreement between ZIFA and the players.”
ZIFA had earlier accused players of wanting “to hold the nation at ransom in their quest to earn money”.
Some of the team — reportedly led by those playing abroad — had refused to use “substandard” accommodation at a training facility in Harare run by the association.
The team was also barred from a practice session at the national sports stadium over a $60 debt owed by ZIFA.
“We clearly know we are in a tough group that includes the likes of Algeria and Senegal,” said coach Callisto Pasuwa.
“Football is decided on the pitch and if they can put enough effort just like they did against giants Cameroon in the friendly, then we will surprise everyone.
“I’m happy because our opponents will treat us like underdogs, taking the pressure off us and making it easier for a good surprise from the ‘Warriors’.”
After recent victories, the team has been compared to the side which shone on the continent in the 1990s, going 13 matches unbeaten under German coach Reinhard Fabisch.
Zimbabwe’s economy has been wrecked by hyperinflation, corruption and agricultural collapse, and the national football team has often relied on well-wishers to pay its players and coaches.
Last year, the country was expelled from the 2018 World Cup preliminary competition over non-payment of a $67,000 debt owed to former coach Jose Claudinei Georgini, a Brazilian.
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