Can Zim Football get a fillip in post-Mugabe era?

Simba Mushati

A NEW political dispensation has brought renewed hopes of economic revival in Zimbabwe, and the country's football fraternity is anticipating some positive spinoffs following decades of financial hardships and curtailed progress.

Long-ruling President Robert Mugabe, himself an avid soccer fan, resigned under military pressure last month to take with him the policies which had led to a change in leadership in the southern African country.

Mugabe's successor, Emerson Munangagwa, seemingly has a liking for football as well, as his role as patron for newly-minted Zimbabwe Premier League champions FC Platinum suggests.

More importantly though, President Munangagwa has been quick to institute a radical policy shift and raise hopes of economic recovery, leaving some among the country's football fraternity licking their lips at the prospect of a new dawn.

"A vibrant economy or just a growing economy is going to be good for football and I believe our economy is going to grow," said Nigel Munyati, a former board member of the Zimbabwe Football Association (Zifa), told KweséESPN.

"I have hope in the attitude that we have now taken as a government and as a people, in terms of driving our economy forward so it's going to change, I am very positive about that.

"Football thrives on a vibrant economy. If you have corporations that are doing well, they will have more money to spend on sponsorship of clubs, sponsorship of leagues, and even sponsorship of individuals."

The state of Zimbabwean football today in many ways mirrors the economic hardship prevalent all round, with development programmes virtually non-existent as top clubs and national teams are forced to focus on the here and now.

Talent flight has become rampant in recent years, with local clubs now losing their top players even to the Tanzania league. Zambia and Mozambique are also beginning to look like attractive destinations as their economies continue to grow.

Munyati, co-founder of the Aces Youth Soccer Academy, especially bemoans the absence of the vibrant junior policy structures of the 80s decade, which groomed great names such as Stanford Mutizwa, Stanley Ndunduma, Willard Khumalo, Moses Chunga, Shackman Tauro, and Archieford Chimutanda, among many others.

There have been few positive developments in an era when Zimbabwean football has been in the news mostly for the wrong reasons, including the expulsion from the 2018 World Cup qualifiers for failing to settle an $82 000 debt owed to former national team coach Jose Claudinei Georgini.

In another forgettable episode, the Warriors nearly failed to fulfil a 2017 Afcon qualifier away to Malawi in 2015, as the team missed their flight amid haggling over outstanding bonuses before enduring a rigorous road trip to Blantyre.

The Zimbabwe U17 and U20 teams have served bans for failing to fulfil fixtures back in 2012, while the country has sometimes gone without representatives in continental club competitions due to financial constraints.

Veteran football administrator Ndumiso Gumede argues that the failure by Mugabe's government to support sport played a key role in condemning the country's football to a troubled path.

"Other African teams are funded by their governments, yes. It might not be funded at club level, but they do assist at national level, definitely," Gumede told KweséESPN.

"If a team qualifies to represent Zimbabwe (in Africa) it's no-longer Dynamos or Highlanders or CAPS United. It will now be the Zimbabwe national team, and Zimbabwe must shoulder the responsibility for the sustenance of that particular team."

Even during the decade that Leo Mugabe, a nephew to the former President, spent at the helm of Zifa, little was coming from the government by way of assistance.

"Leo did ask for assistance from the former President, yes, but not on a formal level," Gumede recalls.

"I remember one time we went out to Zvimba there and as we were seated, I remember Leo saying, 'Uncle, but please assist us in soccer.' However nothing came out."

Mugabe occasionally attended Warriors matches at the National Sports Stadium back in the 90s, "at our invitation," Gumede pointed out. In 2012, the former President told international stars gathered in Harare for Benjamin Mwaruwari's testimonial that he supported Chelsea and Barcelona.

"When I am watching soccer I do not want anyone to disturb me," he said. "Even my wife knows where to sit because while they are scoring in the field I will be scoring at home, kicking everything in front of me."

Gumede is optimistic the new government will be more willing to chip in, not least because the new minister of sport, Kazembe Kazembe, is a former executive member at Harare giants Dynamos.

"Being a former Dynamos person, the new minister understands the plight of the clubs... It is welcome change. He is a youngish guy who has been into sport and he knows the problems that we face," Gumede enthused.

While the economy and the government side of things are expected to improve, former Zifa board member Munyati is worried that the endemic maladministration and lack of focus could continue to hold local football back.

"Until we change our whole culture, we are going to make very small steps. We need giant steps right now to catch up with the rest of the world," Munyati said.

"We need people with a passion for football, not a passion for self aggrandisement. Right now we have got individuals who end up doing very well for themselves through football but they will have done nothing for football itself."


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