Chiefs star Khama Billiat encouraged by Zimbabwe’s brave performance against Egypt in Afcon opener
Zimbabwe's strike threat had no effect on their performance‚ said star player Khama Billiat‚ as the Warriors lived up to their nickname with a brave performance going down 1-0 to Egypt in Friday night's 2019 Africa Cup of Nations opening game in front of a sold-out Cairo International Stadium.
The match followed an opening ceremony that was short‚ sweet‚ professional and‚ as these things go‚ actually really good.
Egypt were cautious and perhaps a little subdued but their level of precision and discipline still marked the tournament hosts out as certainly a favourite to repeat their 2006 home soil success.
Zimbabwe could not match the hosts' outstanding organisation‚ but were skilful and managed to give the Pharaohs‚ in front of a 75‚000 cauldron of red that will be a huge factor for the three-time successive champions of 2006‚ 2008 and 2010‚ some nervous moments.
“I just want to give credit to the boys. As much as we didn't get the result that we wanted we showed professionalism‚ we stayed focused‚ and we just needed to do little mistakes that we made and wrong decisions better‚” Kaizer Chiefs' little playmaker Billiat said.
“When to pass and when to shoot - those little things. I think we have learnt. The guys started showing more confidence in the second half.”
Zimbabwe had spent Thursday reportedly barracked into their hotel rooms over a pay dispute with their FA.
The strike‚ which threatened to derail the opening game‚ was resolved hours before its 10pm kickoff.
This spared the organisers a potential PR disaster after a week where it was announced Fifa are taking over the administration of the Confederation of African Football (Caf)‚ which has been dogged by allegations of widespread corruption under controversial president Ahmad Ahmad.
Then again‚ it would not be the Nations Cup without such off-field dramatics.
“I think the guys are really professional. I give credit for that. The way we did put everything away in a space of a few hours‚ and shifted the focus to the game‚” Billiat said.
“That means a lot. And I'm not saying we got this result [a defeat] because of what happened. We showed professionalism.
“If what happened had made us have a bad performance today we could have lost by more‚ we couldn't have had certain moments that we had.
“So I don't think it had anything to do with the result. But we take this as a lesson. We still have a chance to do better. And thank God there are more games coming. We'll use this game to rectify our mistakes.”
Zimbabwe's goalkeeper‚ Edmore Sibanda of South Africa's First Division Witbank Spurs‚ made some world-class saves from an Egypt frontline that included the exquisite touches of Liverpool hitman Mohamed Salah.
“He's a great goalkeeper. One of the best in Africa‚" Billiat said.
The Chiefs star was a marked man as he attempted to dictate play‚ and can probably expect more of the same in the tournament.
Billiat will come up against his former Mamelodi Sundowns teammate‚ goalkeeper Denis Onyango‚ in Zimbabwe's next game against Uganda at Cairo International on Wednesday.
The game‚ where Trézéguet scored the 41st-minute winner‚ seemed an indication that there will be few real underdogs in the new‚ expanded 24-team Afcon.
There have been some organisational issues from Egypt‚ who beat South Africa in the bid to replace stripped Cameroon as hosts.
A group of about 100 Zimbabwean fans at one of the gates claimed to have been removed from the stadium.
It was not established if they managed to get back in.
Journalists trying to enter the stadium were sent from gate to gate.
The Wifi was poor‚ there is no water to drink - or even buy - in the media centre ... in a city located in a desert.
But the Afcon got off to an absorbing‚ classy start on the field.
As one Twitter user aptly said: "It's on. Now let the grass suffer."
Mo Salad‚ anyone?