20 hours' training with only 14 players: Inside Zimbabwe's chaotic CHAN campaign

Zimbabwe played most of the CHAN tournament with just 14 players due to coronavirus. They opened the tournament against hosts Cameroon. Jean Pierre Kepseu/Xinhua via Getty

Zimbabwe may have been eliminated from the ongoing African Nations Championship (CHAN) at the first hurdle, but that they made it to the tournament in Cameroon at all was a miracle.

Warriors head coach Zdravko Logarusic has told ESPN about an unlikely story of a tournament campaign conducted against the odds, thanks to the ever-present coronavirus, and a severe lack of preparation.

The Southern African nation qualified for the CHAN -- the competition reserved for home-based players -- with victory over Lesotho in October 2019, long before the COVID-19 pandemic changed the complexion of the continent's football.

The consequence of the pandemic's disruption was that the majority of Zimbabwe's CHAN squad didn't play competitive football for 15 months before the tournament, while positive tests before and during the event also affected their ability to make an impact in Cameroon.

They were knocked out at the group stage, losing their final round robin match 1-0 on Sunday against Mali but already out of contention before that.

Croatian coach Logarusic, who was appointed in February 2020, told ESPN: "The last official game in Zimbabwe was 30 November 2019, when the league finished.

"In March [2020], preparation started for the league, but it didn't kick off as the government cut everything after three weeks of training because of coronavirus.

"We couldn't do anything until the government gave us the green light in December, and then we could officially start training again -- just training, not the league [itself]."

While the Zimbabwean players at FC Platinum, who qualified for the CAF Champions League, returned to competitive continental action in November, the rest still await the return of the domestic top flight, with no date yet confirmed.

"I've never seen the league, I've never seen any player in an official game," Logarusic said.

Even after he began to gather his CHAN squad together in December, Covid struck -- this time in the squad itself -- to stymie their preparations once again.

The coach added: "For the first two weeks, we didn't touch the players, because after so many months, I wanted them to stay with their clubs for a fortnight [to train].

"Then from 10 December I called 13-14 players to join the camp for the CHAN. We had seven sessions before the Christmas break, then when we returned to camp they locked us down because 10 players and five coaches had coronavirus.

"We waited for 10 days of isolation to pass, then we had three training sessions and we came here [to Cameroon] -- we only had 10 training sessions before the tournament, with no friendlies, and without a domestic league since 2019."

Logarusic acknowledges that Zimbabwe considered skipping the CHAN altogether due to the lack of preparation, with half of the squad taking part in the full 10 sessions and 20 hours of preparation, and the rest only available for the final 10 hours of training before arriving in Cameroon.

However, the 55-year-old, who first embarked on his coaching career in his 20s, relished the challenge of preparing the tournament underdogs amidst such adverse circumstances.

"We've tried so many things, because you can't find the instructions on how to prepare players for a tournament after 20 hours' preparation in any book," the ex-Gor Mahia and Asante Kotoko boss laughed.

"Physically, mentally, they'd lost the touch for the ball, for space, for challenges.

"If you haven't done these things for so many months, of course you can't do anything special.

"How can a player feel comfortable after being away for so long? He isn't, he's lost his sense of space, sense of dribbling, sense of touch. He's lost these moments."

Instead, Logarusic, who guided Sudan to the semifinals at the 2018 CHAN in Morocco, focused on group-work, on transmitting his values and philosophy, and ensuring that his defensive unit were organised heading into their opening fixture against the hosts.

Ultimately, Zimbabwe came up short -- falling to Salomon Banga's acrobatic 72nd-minute winner -- although they won many admirers for a rugged, committed display that showed little trace of the travails that they had endured in the preceding weeks and months.

On Wednesday, they became the first team officially eliminated from the tournament after falling to a 3-1 defeat against Burkina Faso in Yaounde, although before the game, Zim were again hit by further positive Covid diagnoses.

"We again had three, four players with coronavirus, while two more players are injured," Logarusic continued. "We only had 14 [outfield] players for the game."

CAF have come in for criticism during the CHAN due to the apparent lax enforcement of coronavirus measured outlined by the organisation -- in association with the Cameroonian authorities -- ahead of the competition.

But Logarusic didn't believe the disease-prevention measures introduced by the Confederation of African Football were too lenient, despite how his team was impacted by the disease.

He said: "We took a COVID test before we travelled from Zimbabwe, 24 hours before we travelled, then in Cameroon, after 26 hours, another test.

"That was at two in the afternoon; then at four in the afternoon, CAF came to make more tests as they didn't accept the previous tests.

"In [50] hours, we were tested three times."

But, despite rules on mask-wearing and social distancing at stadia, there was ample evidence in the Warriors' opener with Cameroon that supporters were ignoring both measures, with mask-less fans flocking to celebrate with goalscorer Banda following his late winner.

Logarusic, however, is sympathetic towards the challenge CAF faces in light of the general apathy towards safety he has experienced in Cameroon.

"I realise they are trying their best, but to implement [measures] in a place where people are not taking things seriously is a problem," said the 55-year-old.

"We drove from the hotel to the stadium and we never saw anyone in the streets or in the areas with a mask, most people haven't even got them.

"I saw these things, but CAF officials are trying to push, it's just that people aren't believing in these things; some don't want to follow, some say it's nonsense, and some are taking it seriously.

"Even in my team, some people believe everything, while others are trying to escape everything that's to do with coronavirus."

According to the World Health Organisation, Cameroon has had -- to date -- over 28,000 confirmed COVID cases and 455 recorded deaths.