FOR eight years we had carried memories of a teenage Peter Ndlovu, dancing around the Bafana Bafana defence, with both skill and rhythm, for a vintage piece of poetry in motion, before crowning it all with one of the greatest goals ever scored by a Warrior.
For close to a decade, we had drawn comfort from that defining image of our emerging superstar, making a mockery of that South African defence with a spectacular display of brilliance so stunning, in its quality, it should have only been fit for the eyes of angels in their flight.
It was our fourth goal, and his second of that unforgettable afternoon, and in that sublime piece of movement, we saw the rapid transformation of a boy turning himself into a man who, with the passage of time, would become a superman to lead us to the Nations Cup finals.
There was that burst into the box, the quick feet, the twists and turns, without breaking stride, as if he was playing at a level that was alien to the opponents, the closest thing that a footballer can get to walking on water, some even said he was flying, and by the end of it all, the delivery of a goal of the highest quality.
Of course, we won that game 4-1, as sweet and comprehensive a victory over our neighbours as they will ever come, and Peter, in his final year as a teenager, led from the front, giving us a glimpse of what we would see, in a future where he would become our pillar of strength, the man we turned to for inspiration, culminating in that march to the Promised Land of the Nations Cup finals a dozen years later.
Amid the pain inflicted by persistent failure, on the big stage, the heartbreak of always collapsing at the final hurdle just as glory appeared on the horizon, and the burden of failing to exorcise the ghost of doomed missions that relentlessly stalked us, we held on to the beauty of that moment when Peter made us all feel very special.
Peter’s super goal came during a time when our Warriors had turned themselves into an unbeatable team and, between April 14 ’91, when we beat Egypt 2-1 here, to May 2 ’93, when we were humbled 0-3 in Guinea, that Dream Team did not lose a Nations Cup/World Cup game in 13 contests at home and on the road.
And, our big win over South Africa, and Peter’s irresistible display of magic that day, always featured prominently in the discussions when the fans talked about that golden era when the Warriors turned themselves into a side that was simply unbeatable and, boy oh boy, we came very, very close to winning a place at the World Cup finals.
Given that we didn’t meet South Africa, again, in either a Nations Cup or World Cup tie at home until Bafana Bafana arrived for that 2002 World Cup qualifier in July 2000, one feels a lot of the Warriors’ fans carried the emotions from that game in ’92, when we demolished our rivals, as they trooped to the National Sports Stadium at the turn of the millennium.
Those who had not been witnesses, to the events of ’92, including those born after that game, were fed a bulky dosage of what happened that unforgettable afternoon, of a Prince called Peter who turned himself into a King with one magical show as he tore Bafana Bafana apart, and the arrival of our neighbours from across the Limpopo provided memories of a bygone era and a reminder of the levels that we could scale.
We were all pumped up for that showdown and the fact that our rivals had somehow found a way, to lift themselves from the debris of that four-goal whipping to win the Nations Cup in ’96, finish second at the Nations Cup in ’98 and reach the World Cup finals that year, provided the spice that was needed to electrify the occasion.
We were better than them, despite all that they had achieved, we kept telling ourselves, and when we beat them in an international friendly in June ’99 1-0, we really believed our hype that, when it came to head-to-head contests, we were the real deal and, if they doubted that, it would be proven in that 2002 World Cup battle.
Or so we thought.
AND, THEN, IT ALL WENT BADLY WRONG FOR US
There was a buzz among the fans inside the giant stadium that afternoon, it was a charged atmosphere, there were great expectations, the fact that Bafana Bafana had improved since that mauling in ’92 barely mattered, this was a derby of all derbies, and the confidence levels among the locals were very high that, cometh the hour, their men would deliver.
Of course, it didn’t go that way.
As the game staggered towards the closing stages, it became clear that we were going to lose and, as much as it hurt, the South Africans had played the better football and, even though the majority of our fans were angry of the inevitability of the outcome, chances are that this game would have passed without an incident if one stupid boy, Delron Buckley, hadn’t decided to rub salt into the wounds with that finger insult.
Telling the angry fans to shut up, in a manner that would be considered offensive, and out of place, even in a bar, telling the local supporters, in a display of both stupidity and recklessness, that they should bow down to him and acknowledge that he was the main man, the one who had tamed the Warriors in their backyard.
The man who had floored their heroes in the place they called their home, that times had changed and ’92 now represented a past so distant it was not even worth mentioning, and the sooner we acknowledged that the better.
Maybe Buckley, just like many of his teammates, was still feeling the pain of that hammering, suffered by those who came before them eight years earlier, and decided, in his moment of glory, after scoring his second goal, to pour it all out, and the reaction, from the angry fans, was predictable, with missiles raining onto the pitch.
Amid the disturbances, police fired teargas into the crowded bays and what followed later doesn’t need to be dignified by another reminder, in a national newspaper, and when the madness had died down, 13 Warriors fans lay dead or about to die.
The darkest day, in the history of Zimbabwean sport, had just been scripted in a matter of minutes and wounds, which will never heal, inflicted in a matter of moments, a contest so beautiful it had given us memories to last about a decade, thanks to the magic of Peter Ndlovu and his teammates that unforgettable day in ’92, had suddenly turned into one so ugly it had robbed us of more than a dozen countrymen and women.
A game, which Pele called the most beautiful in the world, had turned into a very ugly one, and no amount of tears would bring back the souls that we lost that day when, just like that, it all went horribly wrong.
Alec Dean Fidesi was only six years old, a DeMbare fan who came to support his national team, and in that stampede, his life was cruelly taken away, and given that he was the youngest, among those who died, his fresh-faced figure, combining both innocence and striking good looks already evident in those youthful days, became the defining image of that tragedy
He would have been 21 today, had fate been kinder to him, and who knows, maybe he would have been good enough to play for the Young Warriors when they host their South African counterparts, in their showdown in Harare next weekend.
On that afternoon, our football saw its soul being devoured by a combination of events with a tragic ending, and being one of those who lived through that tragedy, one of those who covered it and talked to a number of families who lost their loved ones, I found it disappointing this week that the 15th anniversary of our game’s darkest day should pass unnoticed as if it never happened.
I found it disturbing that our football leadership would sleep on duty and forget that, on July 9, 15 years ago, something horrible happened to this game and a good number of people, who went to the giant stadium in the name of supporting their national team, didn’t return home to tell their tales of how the afternoon unfolded.
I found it irritating that the same football leaders, who have been battling each other for the control of this game for the last few months, and have used every chance and medium to tell us that they are the ones in control, decided to turn their backs on such an important event and to remember such important saints.
How can we forget, really, within such a short time?
How can we turn our backs to men and women, boys and girls, who loved their national team so much they ended up paying the ultimate price for their passion to see the Warriors succeed, to see their troops win a big battle?
Surely, can we be a community with such short memories, one that doesn’t care about things that happened just 15 years ago, and if those people — who perished in that disaster — are not heroes of our game, who then can claim to be the heroes of our football?
Charles Mabika always tells me, now and again, that the problem with Zimbabwe football is that it has been invaded by people who don’t care about the game, people who don’t care about its history and people who only want to think about themselves, about being leaders when they can’t lead, about fights that they can’t win and about themselves and no one else.
Just remembering those heroes who perished at the National Sports Stadium won’t bring them back but it shows respect, it shows that we care for them, we appreciate that they loved our game and our Warriors and we are still walking with them, even though they are no longer with us today, in a physical sense.
That’s why, as Zimbabweans, we go to our rural homes now and again, to remember our family members who died, to reconnect with their souls because, it’s the way we are as a people, that we will never be divorced from them even though they are nolonger with us today.
FINALLY, AFTER WE SCREAMED YESTERDAY, ZIFA REACTED
Yesterday, in this newspaper, we wondered why our football community appears in a rush to forget the heroes of 2000, and why July 9, which represented the 15th anniversary of that tragedy, came and went as if it was just another day.
We reminded our football leaders that the English have never forgotten Hillborough even though the tragedy happened in 1989 and that, this year, as has been happening every year, Kalusha Bwalya, the FAZ president, made sure that he attended the memorial service for those who died in that plane crash off the coast of Gabon in ’93.
Well, at least, we got a response from ZIFA communications officer, Xolisani Gwesela, who issued the following statement:
“The Zimbabwe Football Association would like to inform the football fraternity and the nation at large that it is dedicating the Under-23 CAF Championship qualifier against South Africa to thirteen fans who perished in the year 2000 after a commotion that ensued during a match which involved Zimbabwe and South Africa senior teams at the National Sports Stadium,” said Gwesela.
“ZIFA urges football fans to throng the ceremonial home of local football, Rufaro, for this emotional fixture which is also just 180 minutes away from qualification for the continental finals to be hosted by Senegal in November 2015.
“The Zimbabwe football Association celebrates tenets of Fair Play and we urge all football fans to desist from any form of hooliganism. When the teams take to the field (next) Sunday, a minute of silence will be observed in honour of these lost souls before kick-off.
“ZIFA would like to thank the Premier Soccer League for suspending its whole programme to accommodate this special fixture which comes in the month that saw a tragic stampede culminate in the passing on of thirteen supporters fifteen years ago.”
Well, maybe better late than never, but July 9, Xolisani, remains a very important day for some of us who lived through the ordeal at the giant stadium.
To God Be The Glory!
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