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Zimbabwe's Football Team Faces  Eritrea in African Cup Qualifier Game - 2003-07-05

For the first time in a long time, the number one topic in Zimbabwe is not politics or how to get food or fuel. Instead, Zimbabweans have become obsessed with a football (soccer) game that takes Saturday. Zimbabwe's national team plays Eritrea in the final game of the qualifiers for the 2004 African Cup of Nations. But Zimbabwe has to beat the East Africans by a wide margin to qualify.

The Warriors, as the national team is known, are on the verge of a historic first appearance at the premier football event in Africa: the African Cup of Nations. But to compete in the tournament, which takes place next year, the Warriors not only need to beat Eritrea but beat them by three goals more than Mali scores in the other group qualifier against the Seychelles.

After five games each, Mali and Zimbabwe are at the top of their group. Both teams have won four games and lost a game, but the Eagles, as the Malian national side is known, have scored more goals, giving them the edge on points.

If Zimbabwe beats Eritrea and scores three more goals than Mail, they qualify automatically. Should they win but fail to score enough goals, they may still sneak through if they emerge as the best runner up in their own group and one other.

Since independence 23 years ago, the Zimbabwean football team has failed to qualify for either the African Cup of Nations or the World Cup. The Warriors have come close to qualifying a couple of times, only to lose in their final qualifying game.

While the pessimists among Zimbabwe's sports fans are pointing to these near misses, many others believe Zimbabwe's time has come.

The government has promised the team $Z100 million, or about $US50,000, if they score five clear goals in Saturday's game. The corporate world has also chipped in with a variety of incentives.

Minister of Information Jonathan Moyo has even composed a song for the team.

Shops that sell the shirts of the national team are reporting a brisk business, as are those that sell the national flag.

And, if Zimbabwe does qualify, the country's problems might just be postponed for a few days.