Zimbabwean Football: Clinging to Mugabe’s hollow promises

Last week the infamous Robert Mugabe claimed a landslide ‘victory’ in the Zimbabwe presidential elections to tighten his leadership grip. Since 1980 he has reigned as the Prime Minister then President over a regime of alleged corruption and violence. The economic situation has deteriated in tandem with his land-grab policy over the last decade and there have been almost non-existent funds for sport; along with education and culture, sport formed one government ministry. In March this year Mugabe handed out the domestic league’s trophy and took a very sudden and suspicious interest in football promising when he won the election money would be made available.

Prior to independence top tier football came from the Rhodesia National Football League. It ran from 1962 to 1979 with Dynamos of the capital Harare dominating with six titles and four other teams taking two titles each including Bulawayo Rovers, Bulawayo Sables, Salisbury Sables and Chibuka Shumba. Independence and the international acceptance of Zimbabwe brought a fresh championship called the Zimbabwe Premier Soccer League or more recently the Castle Lager Premier Soccer League reflecting it’s sponsor. The change in name and format did not sway the tide of victory; Dynamos continued to sweep all aside before them and currently stand on 20 championship wins as of 2012 ahead of Highlanders with seven and CAPS United on four.

With 16 teams competing each season from March to November a relatively high number of four are relegated, replaced by four teams from the second tier. At the time of writing Harare City sit on top of the tree in the 2013 season, three points ahead of Highlanders and five ahead of Dynamos, ensuring the traditional pattern of domination by Harare teams.

On the national team front the country would surely wish for a return to the days of old. Ranked as high as 40 in the world in 1993 the ‘Warriors’ have not seen such dizzy heights since. Playing under three different titles, Southern Rhodesia, Rhodesia and Zimbabwe, the country has never qualified for a World Cup and made their virgin appearance in the African Nations Cup as recent as 2004. After a consecutive appearance in 2006 there has been little to cheer about since.

That was until last month when they finished runners-up in the COSAFA (Council of Southern Africa Football Associations) Cup, losing to hosts Zambia in the final and impressively finishing ahead of South Africa in third place. However they did get a bye into the Quarterfinals and only had to beat Malawi and Lesotho to reach the final. This surprise appearance caused a stir even with ZIFA; the national football association had promised to give the players half of the $250,000 awarded for finishing second. As of last week the team went on strike by missing training for a Chan first round match against Mauritius when the payments had still not arrived.

The disgruntled but relatively young squad play their club football across Zimbabwe and South Africa as well as France, England and Germany. Left wing-back Onismor Bhasera has been impressive for his former club Plymouth Argyle, winning the 2012-2013 club Player of the Year but despite being offered a contract extension mysteriously failed to appear back at the club for pre-season training.  Strong across the middle of the park and with fifty caps to his name is Esrom Nyandoro, a leading presence not only for the national team but also for South African giants Mamelodi Sundowns. Leading the front line is the German based prolific Hoffenheim striker Knowledge Musona with ten goals in 15 national games.

Perhaps unsurprisingly corruption is not just confined to government with the former national team boss Norman Mapeza banned in 2012 for six-months for encouraging players to throw matches for cash. His replacement, Klaus Deiter Pagels, was sourced from the German third division on an interim contract and this month handed over the reigns to former Dynamos striker Ian Gorowa. The home-grown boss has started brightly winning his debut game against Mauritius 3-0 but he has been quick to dampen too much unrealistic expectations warning that he has been promised a lot by the powers to be to help his cause.

With the recent crop of talent and an experienced coach with respect from across the African continent, for football reasons you would assume that the future is bright. The main goal for Zimbabwe is to qualify for the 2015 African Nations Cup but the country will not hold it’s breath as politics steers the game’s progress. The current economic situation and government policies will likely ensure football will have to battle for priority for some time longer, despite Mugabe’s promises of attention and investment.

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