THIS weekend is a big one indeed in football, not just in Zimbabwe, but throughout the rest of Africa.
The first legs to decide who will represent the continent at the World Cup finals in Brazil next year take place tomorrow and on Sunday with ten countries vying for the five spots allotted to Africa.
Yes, the Mbada Holdings Diamonds Cup quarter-finals in Zimbabwe are scheduled for this weekend too, but quite unfortunately, these certainly play second fiddle to the final Africa zone qualifying round of the 2014 World Cup finals which features mouth-watering ties.
There are also some exciting World Cup qualifiers in Europe and elsewhere and the whole World Cup qualifying programme combined takes away some shine from the country’s richest knockout competition, the Mbada Diamonds Cup.
The slight good news is that most of the World Cup ties tomorrow and Sunday do not clash with the Mbada Diamonds Cup ties in terms of start times and, in some cases, fans will be able to get home from their Mbada ties before SuperSport starts broadcasting the World Cup matches.
It would have been preferable if the two tournaments had not been clashing!
In the first legs of the final, qualifying ties tomorrow Burkina Faso will host Algeria in Ouagadougou and the Ivory Coast will clash with Senegal in Abidjan while on Sunday Ethiopia will meet Nigeria in Addis Ababa and Tunisia, who came back into the tournament following the disqualification of the Cape Verde for using an ineligible player, will face Cameroon in Tunis.
The last qualifying pairing pits Ghana against Egypt and the tie will be played in Kumasi on Tuesday.
Eight of the ten teams still in the running have all taken part at the World Cup finals before, but Ethiopia and Burkina Faso will be seeking their first appearance at the finals that take place every four years.
In fact, of the eight still in the hunt, all except Senegal have been at the finals at least twice with Cameroon having six appearances, the highest number.
Senegal have been to the finals only once before in 2002 when Japan and South Korea were joint hosts – the only time the finals jointly hosted – and we all remember their exploits when they beat powerhouses France and Uruguay in their group matches and drew with Denmark to qualify for the first knockout stage where they overcame Sweden 2-1 after extra time only to fall to Turkey 0-1, again after extra time, in the quarter-finals.
The most exciting of their group matches was when they edged their former colonial masters France, the then defending champions, 1-0 ,with Bouba Diop scoring the only goal.
I remember watching the match live on television while in Masvingo and the full house went up in ecstasy at the end of the match!
The countries that make up the last ten qualifiers confirm the old story of African football – the continental powerhouses are in West and North Africa. In the last ten, only Ethiopia are outside these two geographic regions and the Cape Verde, if they had not been disqualified, would have provided a fresh breath of air as the first island country to get far in the competition.
The strength of teams from West and North Africa is something that Cup finals and there is need for the rest of the continent to work very hard to break this jinx.
In this respect, it is unfortunate that the Mbada Diamonds Cup quarter-finals are being played during a Fifa international weekend which, surely, should have been made available to the national team to play a friendly match.
Most other countries are playing practice matches this weekend and it is surprising that Zimbabwe seems to put too much weight on its domestic commitments at the expense of the national team.
Ian Gorowa and the national team have qualified for the African Nations Championships (Chan) finals in South Africa next January and February and the coach and the team would certainly have benefited immensely from a match against another national team, even if only to try a few new combinations for the Chan finals or just to stretch legs together and engender greater esprit de corps.
While it is appreciated, Mbada are pouring in thousands of their funds into the tournament, Mbada surely do it for the overall development of football in the country rather than just for their egoistic motives, of course under the guise of corporate social investment!
If this is true, ensuring that the national team develops, then it is a key aspect of the overall development of soccer in the country and one of the several ways of achieving this will be to allow the national team as much time together as possible.