Robson Sharuko in CAIRO, Egypt
WARRIORS doctor Somani Mudariki expects Khama Billiat to be fully fit for Zimbabwe’s opening 2019 AFCON Group A showdown against hosts Egypt at the Cairo International Stadium on Friday night, despite the influential forward missing three days of training because of a knee injury.
The diminutive forward’s absence from the team’s training programme from Friday, including missing a physical practice match against Tanzania here on Sunday that ended in a 1-1 draw, had triggered fears he could miss the opening battle against the Pharaohs.
But team doctor Mudariki allayed those fears yesterday when he told The Herald Billiat’s absence was just precautionary after he complained of pain in his knee following some brutal treatment he received from the opposition during the COSAFA Cup matches in Durban.
Mudariki said he expects Billiat to be back to full training from today, even though there are concerns surrounding midfielder Tafadzwa Kutinyu, whose leg was in a strap yesterday after suffering a knee injury.
Goalkeeper Elvin Chipezeze, who has been in contention for a place in the starting XI on Friday given that regular number one George Chigova is suspended for that game, suffered a concussion in the practice match against Tanzania on Sunday and will have to be monitored by the medical team.
There are standard procedures related to cases of concussion which the medical staff must follow before clearing a player to feature in a competitive game, although Mudariki said it was encouraging that Chipezeze did not lose consciousness during the clash with a Tanzanian opponent.
The incident led to the goal scored by the Taifa Stars.
“We will have to keep monitoring Chipezeze because there are procedures that we have to follow, but the important thing is that he never lost consciousness after the clash,’’ said Mudariki.
“We are also monitoring Kutinyu and waiting for the scans, but Khama should be okay this week because what we did was just a precaution when he indicated to me that he had some pain in his knee from an injury he picked at the COSAFA Cup.
“He played on after picking that slight injury and even went to Nigeria and played and that’s when he indicated that he was concerned with the pain he was getting in his knee.
“It’s the pain that was caused by fibula head contusion and we decided we could not take any risks given the importance of the tournament and the games that are coming, and that is why we decided that he should get as much rest as possible, but he should be okay.’’
Billiat is a star attraction in this country, especially after thousands of Zamalek fans crafted an online campaign to try and lure him to play for the team when his contract expired with Mamelodi Sundowns, and reports of his injury — as first reported by the Zimbabwe Newspaper stable — attracted a lot of coverage in the local media.
Mudariki said the player’s latest injury had little to do with his previous injuries which also saw him missing the opening 2019 AFCON qualifier against Liberia in June 2017 where Knowledge Musona scored a hat-trick in a 3-0 victory.
Then, in March this year, Billiat suffered a hamstring strain ahead of the final qualifier against the Red Devils of Congo-Brazzaville in Harare, but decided to take a gamble to try and serve his nation in a remarkable show of patriotism. The Warriors needed to win that match to be guaranteed a place at this Nations Cup finals.
He did not join the rest of his teammates in their training drills in the early part of the preparations and spent the sessions juggling the ball on his own, but was then thrust into the starting XI where he opened the scoring with a sublime free-kick in a 2-0 victory.
Billiat was part of his teammates yesterday when they completed their accreditation formalities at their team hotel before they were taken through a session conducted by CAF referees instructor Felix Tangawarima, about the changes that have come into effect in terms of the rules and regulations governing football.
Tangawarima, considered the finest referee to emerge from Zimbabwe, appeared to feel at home as he took the Warriors through the various changes, predominantly using English and occasionally Shona and Ndebele, to hammer his points through.
All the teams taking part at this AFCON finals have to be appraised of the changes in the rule book of refereeing.
Some of the changes include incidents in the penalty area that can now be punished by a penalty, the empowerment of referees to caution or red-card the coaches on the technical bench and why the head coach, Sunday Chidzambwa, in the Warriors’ set-up, was expected to play a leading role in cooling the tempers of his bench when disputes arise, or bear the consequences on behalf of his staff.
In the event of chaos on the bench, including wild protests against the referee’s decisions, the referees have been empowered to send off the head coach, and if the unrest continues, his immediate assistant can also be red-carded.
Goalkeeper Sibanda complained about the use of the blinding lasers by the Egyptian fans and he was assured that it remains an area that CAF were concerned about, especially in matches in this part of the continent, and efforts were underway to try and find a lasting solution.
A capacity 80 000 is expected at the Cairo International Stadium on Friday night in a game the Pharaohs will be marking their homecoming to their spiritual home after years of playing their World Cup and AFCON qualifiers in Alexandria because of political concerns in the capital.
It’s a chance for some of the residents of this vast metropolis of more than 20 million people, more than the entire population of Zimbabwe, to watch their golden boy, Mohamed Salah, up close and personal since his transformation into one of the five superstars of global football.
Reports this week from England, where he plies his trade, suggested he had turned down offers from Real Madrid and Juventus and chose to remain at Liverpool.