In Zimbabwe, a traveller usually knows clearly where she or he is. The pentagon of highways that vein the country is meticulously pegged, kilometre by kilometre. Across Zimbabwe's sparsely populated rural space, a driver appreciates the landmarks.

In the very early hours of 16 December 2012 a BMW X5 was approaching the 471km peg on the Bulawayo to Victoria Falls road when its driver lost control of the vehicle at a curve. A tyre had burst. The vehicle veered off the tarmac, crashed through trees, and shuddered to a standstill leaning on its right side, a mangled wreck. The noise of the collision woke people from the settlement of Lupinyu and drew them to the scene. They found one passenger, Nomqele Tshili, a 24-year-old woman, already dead. The two men in the car were rushed to Victoria Falls hospital in a critical condition. In the dark, and bloodied from head injuries, they had not been recognised as two of Zimbabwe's most celebrated citizens.

The number plate, NUDDY23 GP, told them only that the vehicle was South African. In Coventry or Birmingham or Huddersfield, the personalised 'Nuddy' on the plate might have prompted readier recognition. It is the nickname that Peter Ndlovu, who had been driving, acquired when he moved to England at the beginning of the 1990. It stuck with him through a 13-year career in the Premier League and Championship. At home in Zimbabwe, he was seldom called 'Nuddy'; rather, he was known to team-mates as 'Zonga'.

The other man in the car, Peter's older brother Adam 'Adamski' Ndlovu, died later that Sunday in hospital, aged 42. The Ndlovus had been on their way to Victoria Falls to play in a friendly match for the Highlanders Legends — a gathering of retired players from the principal club of Matabeleland, the region they both come from — against a local XI. It was to have been a day of nostalgia.

In the obituaries for Adam Ndlovu, there would be far more. It is 20 years since Zimbabwe's most famous sporting brothers — a step ahead of the cricketing Flowers, or the tennis-playing Blacks — were spearheading what is now looked on as the nation's finest era in its most popular sport. Mention the 'Dream Team' in Zimbabwe and you shorthand the young Ndlovus up front, a rugged back four and one of football's most charismatic goalkeepers. The Dream Team have an almost folkloric status, although they would fall just short of realising the aspirations they sustained over 15 months, of reaching a World Cup.

The tag Dream Team would first be hung on them during the southern hemisphere winter of 1992, a sobriquet borrowed from the US basketball team at the Barcelona Olympics, an assembly of NBA superstars plunged into a Games that had just discarded the pretence of amateurism. Zimbabwe's football had a sense that it too might draw on an unprecedented expertise from one of the sport's most glamorous professional structures: the English league. From the vantage point of today's Premier League, in which almost every team has at least one African in its line-up, it seems remarkable that in 1992, when the Premier League began, the two established African stars of the top-flight of English football were both Zimbabwean.

Peter Ndlovu, quick, surprisingly sturdy in possession and an awkwardly nimble opponent for many English centre-halves, had been spotted by Coventry City when they toured Zimbabwe as part of pre-season training. Bruce Grobbelaar's route to the dominant English club of that era, Liverpool, from his beginnings at the same Highlanders club as Ndlovu later joined, had been more circuitous, via South Africa and Canada in the late 1970s. His relationship with his national team was complicated, and resolving it would provide an element of suspense in the prelude to the Dream Team's adventure.

In the summer of 1992, Grobbelaar was at a club career crossroads. After a decade of mostly unchallenged ownership of the number one jersey at what had been England's number one club — a period of six league titles, a European Cup and half a dozen winners medals from the major domestic Cups — Grobbelaar was told his Anfield status was threatened. Liverpool had just expensively recruited David James. And on the very weekend the new Premier League was to kick off, he was offered an alternative to sitting on the bench understudying James. Prem or Zim? For the first time after several years of absence from international football, the maverick Grobbelaar answered a call-up from his national team with an enthusiastic "Yes."

Grobbelaar flew out of Merseyside on the Thursday night, three days ahead of the opening match of the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers. He passed through customs at Harare airport using the British passport he had obtained in the early 1980s, by virtue, in common with many of the small but significant minority of white Zimbabweans, of some British ancestry somewhere in the boughs of his family tree. But here was the rub. Grobbelaar had not played for his country for a decade— partly because of a law passed by the government of Robert Mugabe which forbade its citizens from holding both a Zimbabwean passport and a British one. Mugabe's transformation of what had been Rhodesia until the country's first democratic elections of 1980 put his ZANU-PF party in power, is pegged with post-colonial markers like that.

But within ZANU-PF, they were alive to the feelgood power of success on the sports field. "Mugabe was quite clever with the Bruce Grobbelaar situation back then," remembers Pernell McKop, an assistant coach to the Zimbabwe national team in the early 1990s. Grobbelaar wanted in. Zimbabwe's new head coach, a German named Reinhard Fabisch, made it clear he wanted his best goalkeeper in the team. The people wanted Bruce. The fixture in which he might make his comeback was especially resonant. Zimbabwe were to begin their qualifying campaign for the 1994 Cup of Nations against their neighbours South Africa, who would be competing for the first time ever in Africa as a Fifa-authorised national team after decades of anti-apartheid sanctions. It was a South Africa team endorsed by the president-in-waiting Nelson Mandela, an XI of black, white and mixed-race South Africans, emblematic of their Rainbow Nation. For Zimbabwe, the inclusion of Grobbelaar — a man who once fought as a Rhodesian army conscript in the civil war against Mugabe's freedom fighters — made its own statement about their diversity.

"Even two days ahead of the game, the government were saying Bruce's Zimbabwean passport and his eligibility were down to the Home Office," remembers McKop, "so they used it, to hype up the suspense, kept saying 'it's touch and go' whether he could play." Naturally, he did. 

Grobbelaar would also boost the number of Bulawayians in the national team, which was noted. "In some ways Zimbabwean football was quite politicised," says McKop. "The rivalry domestically between Highlanders, from Bulawayo in Matabeleland, and Dynamos from Harare, in Mashonaland, could become very tribalistic." Matabeleland had in the early post-democracy years been subject to brutal oppression by sections of the armed forces. Highlanders versus Dynamos matches bore some of that emotional weight. McKop remembers Joshua Nkomo, the leader of the ZAPU party whose core constituency was in Matabeleland, giving go-get-'em speeches to Highlanders players. "The composition of the national team," he added, "in terms of numbers of players in it from each part of the country was an issue for the politicians and some in the media." Fabisch, as an outsider, exercised a certain licence to disregard that while some fans from Matabeleland congratulated themselves on the unusually high number of their men in the national team.

Once the Dream Team had momentum, it became harder to interfere in such matters. And on a on a sunny winter day at Harare's National Stadium, the Dream Team gained its traction. Grobbelaar had a sense this might be a watershed match for his country. "When I got the call to come back, to play against South Africa, I was thrilled," he recalls. "I knew they'd be really up for it and it would be a helluva game."

The visitors thought they were the big storyline. Fabisch played up the cowing, underdog status of Zimbabwe — "they are much stronger than us" — though not all his players did. Willard Khumalo, the Zimbabwe midfielder, gave a gem of a quote to those of us covering the game. Asked his opinion of South Africa's insatiably showy trickster of a winger, 'Doctor' Khumalo of Kaizer Chiefs, the Khumalo of Zimbabwe suggested the Khumalo of South Africa risked having to "change his name from 'Doctor' to 'Nurse'."

In front of a crowd of more than 40,000, Zimbabwe demolished South Africa. They went 2-0 up thanks to goals from Vitalis 'Digital' Takawira and Rahman Gumbo in the opening 20 minutes, and were 4-1 winners. Peter Ndlovu, still a teenager, got the other two goals.

The Dream Team had lift-off. David had whipped one self-styled Goliath of the continent. Over the months that followed they would aim their slingshots at genuine giants of African football as they picked their way through the cluttered calendar. Besides the Cup of Nations qualifiers, there was the qualifying marathon for the USA World Cup, with its two tiers of group phases, with only the top team going through at each stage. In the course of those, Zimbabwe would be required keep their poise on some demanding away trips — notably to Angola, in the first World Cup mini-league, on a baking January day during the Angolan civil war. "Coming into Luanda, we had to circle all the way down into the airport because someone was shooting at planes," recalls Grobbelaar. "In the stadium, they must have had 80,000. It was only supposed to hold about 50,000." A 1-1 draw felt plucky.

Three weeks earlier, Egypt had been beaten in Harare, a peg on the Dream Team's highway as significant as the resonant rout of the South Africans. Peter Ndlovu's slalom and left-foot drive for the first goal in the 2-1 win had been the highlight.

It set up a rousing conclusion to the group, with Zimbabwe needing a point in Cairo to go through to the next phase and eliminate the Pharaohs. By the end of an intense, rowdy night, Fabisch had a cut to his head and Grobbelaar had also been struck by a missile. Egypt had won 2-1. Zimbabwe, armed with television footage, appealed to Fifa. The world governing body's record on righting perceived wrongs caused by lax security, particularly in Africa, is a little haphazard. Yet the Dream Team were awarded a replay of the match, to be played in Lyon, France. Grobbelaar had one of finest nights of his international career in a 0-0 draw that was vividly celebrated 5,000 miles away.

Back home, bad drought was hurting the population and wearing at the country's economy. "Morale was low at that time," says McKop, "and people clung to the idea of the Dream Team and the road to the USA, and to what we felt might be our first time at an Africa Cup of Nations. When we played those qualifiers, started to put together an unbeaten run, those days brought back some of the joy of independence, the feeling of all having a single objective. I think that's partly why the Dream Team label stuck."

Zimbabwe's Cup of Nations qualifying campaign would by the middle of 1993 be overshadowed by a bigger story. When Zambia came to Harare for the final group match, needing a draw to pip the Dream Team for a place at the finals, they had the sympathy and support of the world. Three months earlier the Zambia squad travelling to a match in Senegal had been killed in a plane crash. Against Zimbabwe, a hastily patched-together side fell a goal behind. The Dream Team were on course for their first ever major tournament. Eleven minutes remained when the Zambia captain Kalusha Bwalya directed a header past Grobbelaar.

The road to the USA remained open. To add to the scalp of Egypt, there would be the cutting down to size of Cameroon, Africa's most visible football power thanks to Italia 90, beaten 1-0 in Harare. But Zimbabwe had dropped points with a defeat in Guinea, the also-rans in their mini-league. After the penultimate set of fixtures of the second group phase, Zimbabwe found themselves again one win shy of the target. They had to go to Yaoundé and beat the Indomitable Lions to be one of the trio of African sides at the 1994 World Cup.

For a while, the dream flickered on. When, five minutes into the second half, Adam Ndlovu scored, a hush came over the Ahmadou Ahidjo stadium. A brief respite from a noise Grobbelaar describes as "like a swarm of angry bees, ringing in your ears." But Cameroon were already two goals up by then. Once they added a third, Zimbabwe were broken. On the touchline, Fabisch started throwing US dollar bills around, implying the referee, who had given a contentious early penalty in favour of Cameroon, had been bought. Zim's Dream Team had been 11 minutes from a first ever Cup of Nations. They had been one win from reaching the US. They had neither.

Just over a year after the loss in Yaoundé, Zimbabwe's most famous footballer was on the front page of the Sun in Britain. Bruce Grobbelaar would spend the next three years defending himself against allegations of match-fixing during his time at Liverpool. He was cleared of corruption charges. He played for his country for a further four years and later coached the Warriors, but after some vigorous disagreements with officials from the Zimbabwe Football Association, his ties with the country weakened. The dual passport issue resurfaced, too. This time it would not be resolved with a presidential flourish.

Zimbabwe's wait for a first appearance at a Cup of Nations lasted into the 21st century, by which time the country often appeared a ceaseless bad news story: violent general elections, surreal inflation rates, soaring unemployment, desperate emigration. Economic crisis meant Zimbabwe withdrew as designated hosts of the African Cup of Nations in 2000. When, nearly quarter of a century after independence, Zimbabwe finally qualified for a Nations Cup, in 2004, the iconic Ndlovu brothers were still up front for the Warriors. The label Dream Team had not accompanied them. Nor were the Zimbabwe who reached the 2006 tournament in Egypt — where Peter Ndlovu won his 100th cap before another group stage exit — deemed worthy of comparison with the sides of the early 1990s.

Even that peak now seems distant. African football's hierarchy, at least at international level, has become refreshingly fluid in the 21st century. Small nations with little footballing heritage rise suddenly, Togo and Angola have reached World Cup finals, Burkina Faso have finished second at a Cup of Nations. Zimbabwe have not caught that train. They currently live with the ongoing fallout from 'Asiagate', the match-fixing scandal centred on the tour by a sub-standard Zimbabwe team to the Far East in 2009, implicating over a hundred players and officials. 

In April 2013, Peter Ndlovu was cleared of culpability in the crash that cost his brother his life and he continues to work as assistant coach to the national team, but it ranks outside Fifa's top 100. Little wonder that a longing, a rose-tinted nostalgia for the so-called Dream Team is easily stirred.