16 June 2012

Zimbabwe: Football Is More Than a Game, It Is a Way of Life

Photo: Confederation of African Football
Former Zimbabwe national team striker, Benjani Mwaruwari.


Football is more than a game, it is a way of life, a mirror through which one can see the ebbs and flows of our world, capturing our joyous moments and our very sad ones.

In his final year as Fifa president, after 24 years in charge, João Havelange was asked if he considered himself to be the most powerful man in the world at that time.

The Brazilian, who had succeeded Stanley Rous to become the seventh Fifa president, had dined with royalty and had been treated like a head of state during his lengthy spell as boss of world football.

Having been an executive member of the International Olympic Committee, since 1963, Havelange had certainly had his time in the high-flying world of global sports leadership.

Now, as he prepared to leave Fifa and make way for his trusted lieutenant Joseph Blatter, the Brazilian was asked if he felt he was the most powerful man in the world.

His reply made very interesting reading:

"I've been to Russia twice, invited by President Yeltsin . . . In Italy, I saw Pope John Paul II three times. When I go to Saudi Arabia, King Fahd welcomes me in splendid fashion," he said.

"Do you think a head of state will spare that much time for just anyone? That's respect. They've got their power, and I've got mine -- THE POWER OF FOOTBALL, WHICH IS THE GREATEST POWER THERE IS."

In the countdown to the historic 2010 World Cup, the first such football festival to be held on African soil, David Hirshey and Roger Bennett, writing for Time Magazine, revisited Havelange's comments and how the power of football had evolved a dozen years since he made that statement.

"Almost 12 years have passed since the statement and now everyone knows that Fifa has transformed itself into the most powerful force on the planet," wrote Hirshey and Bennett.

"It has surpassed the power of governments and multi-national companies and now they all have to queue in front of the federation to sponsor the games.

"The last two decades have helped the game achieve global economic power, it has become such a massive force that it triggered a ceasefire in a brutal civil war in Ivory Coast, caused stock markets of losing nations to tumble and, even strangely, caused a hike in German birth rate when they hosted the (World Cup) in 2006.

"It established a sense of nationality among the Germans which even the great leaders find it difficult to arouse in a nation.

"South Africa are also expecting the same force and impact on people around the world. The country expects that the sense of nationhood strengthens its people.

"It is stamped that the football is a global game which can exercise its power more than the power of the individual nations and beyond any borders.

"The power of game is rising with each passing day with all the big names of corporate economic world affiliating with it in the form of sponsorships and direct investments.

"At one point, Fifa had more participating members than the United Nations or, for that matter, any other organisation in the world.

"The power of football has now gone to a level which has now involved even the most poorest of nations. The sport is now taken so seriously that almost the whole politics and social phenomenon are disturbed by it.

"The craziness of fans, the involvement of even the most powerful individuals in the sport, and the direct impact of the game on world economy makes Fifa the most powerful organisation in the world."

Nothing beats football for its sheer power.

When Zambia needed something to erase from its soul the burden of carrying bitter memories of the Gabon air crash that wiped out a generation of its finest football stars, football threw an unlikely tale.

Chipolopolo won its Nations Cup in the city where that ill-fated plane took off for the last time before crashing, moments after getting airborne, into the Atlantic Ocean in April 1993.

On July 29, 2007, war-torn Iraq, trapped in a bloody conflict, flashed a rare smile, which cheered the spirits of the world, after a sensational 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia to win their maiden Asian Cup.

"The victory did not replace many of the players' sadness. Undoubtedly, it did help to redefine their strength and unite them as a nation again," journalist, Charisse van Horn, wrote on her blog on Yahoo! Sport.

"Death, war, and tragedy followed the Iraqis from the pre-tournament games, to the post-match parties. Some of the players' family members were killed before the tournament and Iraqi coach, Jorvan Vieira, remembered team phsyio Anwar.

"Anwar was killed as he collected tickets for the pre-tournament training camp. Sadness, grief, and loss have become synonymous with the Iraqis.

"However, the jubilant cheers of a war-torn nation, whose victory now reveals their nation in a new light, has temporarily overshadowed their sorrow, a testament that defies all logic, reason, and is a true declaration of the human spirit and resilience of the Iraqi people.

"Against all odds, and in the midst of violence and bloodshed, the team gathered their resources and pulled themselves out of the miry trenches to soar with the wings of eagles as they reign in victory."

Are We Really A Football Nation?

It's exactly eight years now since Franklin Foer published his masterpiece on the game, "How Football Explains The World", in which he talks about how the globe's most beautiful game defines the way we live.

Foer argues that football is more than a game, it is a way of life, a mirror through which one can see the ebbs and flows of our world, capturing our joyous moments and our very sad ones.

"Soccer clubs don't represent geographic areas; they stand for social classes and political ideologies, and often command more faith than religion," a review of Foer's classic book, on Amazon, finds out.

"Unlike baseball or tennis, soccer is freighted with the weight of ancient hatreds and history.

"It's a sport with real stakes -- one that is capable of ruining regimes and launching liberation movements."

"Foer encounters a collection of fans that is stranger than fiction -- an English hooligan with a Jewish mother and a Nazi father and a career as a soldier of fortune and a soccer fan club in Serbia that turns into a brutal anti-Muslim paramilitary unit.

"The global power of soccer might be a little hard for Americans, living in a country that views the game with the same skepticism used for the metric system and the threat of killer bees, to grasp fully.

"But in Europe, South America, and elsewhere, soccer is not merely a pastime but often an expression of the social, economic, political, and racial composition of the communities that host both the teams and their throngs of enthusiastic fans.

"The author uses soccer 'to address economics -- the consequences of migration, the persistence of corruption, and the rise of powerful new oligarchs like Silvio Berlusconi, the (former) president of Italy and president of AC Milan."

But do we really know the power of football here in Zimbabwe? Are we aware of what this game can do for our country? Do we understand its magic or we merely pretend to do so? Do we care about this game or we just feel it's just another sporting discipline?

Thirty-two years after Independence, all that we can show the world for our passion for football are two Nations Cup appearances, three Cosafa Cup titles, one Cecafa Cup title won on home soil, Bruce Grobbelaar, Peter Ndlovu and, to some extent, Benjani Mwaruwari.

When we look across the Zambezi we find a Zambia that proudly calls itself champions of Africa, a country that also made the final of the Nations Cup twice, in 1994 with the legendary Kalusha Bwalya providing the inspiration, and in 1974 when Godfrey "Ucar" Chitalu was king.

In the bars of Lusaka they don't talk about the Cosafa Cup titles they won, the occasions when they were Cecafa Cup kings as defining moments in their game.

When we look across the Limpopo, we find a South Africa that calls itself former champions of Africa, a country that reached the final of the Nations Cup in '98 under the legendary Jomo Sono, a country that reached two World Cup finals in '98 and 2002 and also hosted the 2010 World Cup.

In the bars of Polokwane or Johannesburg, they don't talk about the Cosafa Cup titles they won or the occasions when they reached the semi-finals of the Nations Cup, as defining moments in their football.

They talk about the day Jerry "Legs of Thunder" Skhosana scored a priceless goal in Abidjan, against Asec Mimosas, to transform Orlando Pirates into champions of Africa in 1995.

For us, regrettably, memories of a Champions League final, Abidjan and Asec Mimosas are laced by bitterness because that was where the dream of a courageous group of Glamour Boys ended in a 2-4 defeat that turned the Ivorian club into champions.

When we look west, we see little Botswana, a country that has just under two million people and has more goats than its human stock, and in Gaborone they will tell you that they were the first country to qualify for the last Nations Cup finals in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.

Of course, we missed that tournament by a mile after being coached by four coaches for just six games -- Norman Mapeza, Madinda Ndlovu, Tom Saintfiet and Lutz Pfannetsiel.

When we look to the east, we see Mozambique and although they haven't done pretty much as a country, in terms of making an impression on the continent, they can always brag to the world that they produced a certain legend called Eusebio who went on to take Portugal to the semi-finals of the '66 World Cup.

And, even when they hosted us last Sunday, as lowly as they are today, we couldn't find a way of breaching their defence and, incredibly, we had just one shot on target all afternoon.

Which begs the question -- Are we really a football nation?

The obvious answer you will get is that we are a very big football nation.

After all we have fans who go to the stadiums, when our Warriors are doing well they usually attract more supporters at their home games than any other African team and there are usually more people watching Hwange vs Monomotapa than Moroka Swallows vs SuperSport United.

We have people who buy newspapers specifically for football stories, we have sports shops that are thriving simply because of the booming sales in football merchandise and we have sports clubs that are thriving simply because patrons come there to watch live transmission of international football.

We have Dynamos, a team that almost became African champions and attracts more fans, on a regular basis than all teams in this part of the world, we have Peter Ndlovu, the boy who came from Makokoba and graced the English Premiership, where he was even compared to George Best.

We have Bruce Grobbelaar, the Clown Prince who emerged from the jungle and became the first-choice 'keeper at Liverpool, at a time the Reds were the biggest thing in European football, and one fine night in Rome in '84, he helped them win the European Cup.

But is this what we call football? Is this what Charles Mabika meant when he said This Is Football? Is this what we want? Is this what represents all our dreams, everything that we ever wanted, everything that we will ever wish for?

Definitely No!

There is more to football than all this.

The Structure Isn't Right

Given that in 32 years we have done absolutely nothing, in terms of making an impact as a football nation, it speaks volumes about the flawed structure that we have to manage this game and turn our footballers into champion athletes and our clubs into champions.

When you have a football structure, like the one we have, which treats its footballers with contempt, once their playing days are over, and shuts them completely out of the management of its affairs, then you know we are that horse that is running in a opposite direction to the rest.

When you have a cruel football system that doesn't have any respect for its football-playing heroes and shuns them out of its management structures, simply because the aliens who have hijacked it feel very uncomfortable sitting on the same table with these guys, then you know we have got it all wrong.

When you have a crippled football system that doesn't have any respect for its coaches and shuns them out of its management structures, simply because those who have hijacked it feel very uncomfortable sitting on the same table with these guys, you should know we getting no where.

When you have a flawed football system, which parachutes unknown characters from relative obscurity, either because they have the right connections or are spin-doctoring wizards, and throw them into the heart of its leadership, then you know we won't get anywhere else.

When you have a primitive football system, which views Moses Chunga as a threat that should be destroyed simply because he speaks his mind, rather than as an asset because when his talent took him to Belgium he learnt a lot about this game, then you know we are headed for troubled waters.

When you have a horrible football system, which doesn't believe in feeding off the exposure that Felix Tangawarima has received in all these years working off-shore in the trenches of Fifa, simply because we are afraid we could give him a profile to challenge for high office, then you know we are completely lost.

When you have a football system that recycles the same old characters in leadership positions, simply because their names sound familiar from the past, then we know we going nowhere.

When you have a football system, which places all its fate in the men and women who form the so-called Zifa Council, individuals who have been there for God-knows-how-many-years, to keep voting for the men to sit on the Zifa board, then you know we are getting it all wrong.

Especially against a background that the majority of this electoral college, about 99 percent of it, never played the game in any form and you look at their names and check the files and you can't get anywhere where they kicked the ball.

When you have a football system that shuts the players out, when it comes to selecting who sits on the Zifa board, because we feel their interests are irrelevant, then you know we will never get it right.

Just run down the list of the guys who have led our game, be they chairmen or chief executives, in the past 32 years, and try and link them to anything you can remember, of significance, which happened on a football field in which they played a key part.

Our colleagues across the Limpopo are paying the same price today after parachuting a man from nowhere, whose career highlight in the game was coaching an obscure team called Chibuku Young Stars between 1986 and 1988, to the position of Safa president.

Kirsten Nematandani was a compromise candidate, after the heavyweights Danny Jordaan and Irvin Khoza withdrew from the Safa presidency race, but you can see today the price that Bafana Bafana have paid for the fights that followed and the wrong candidate they elected.

It's pointless, isn't it, to remind you that Bafana Bafana are winless in eight straight games -- one game short of their worst run of nine games without a win in 1997, which led to the firing of coach Clive Baker, just a year after winning the Nations Cup.

The Mail and Guardian summed it up last week with a classic back page headline -- Why Bafana Have To Safa.

It says everything, doesn't it?

The Future I Wish For

What is clear is that we can't go on like this forever because we all have a responsibility to the next generation, our kids in primary school, those not yet in primary school and those not yet born, to create a system that will have a football environment where the chances of success are very bright.

Just like the responsibility we all had this week in rallying behind Knowledge Musona, because we know he is not a devil, we have to keep battling to create a future where football, rather than characters, will be the winner all the time.

An environment, like in Germany, where the Football Association president isn't in the news, and I bet my last dollar that you don't know him, but where the headlines go to people like Philip Lahm, Jerome Boateng, Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mario Gomez and their coach Joachim Low.

An environment, like in Spain, where the Football Association vice-president doesn't make headlines, and I bet my last dollar that you don't know him, but where all the headlines go to people like Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Torres and all the great men who conquered the world.

An environment, like in Zambia, where the Football Association embraced Kalusha Bwalya, instead of treating him as an outcast, and under his guidance they have just been crowned the best football team on the continent against all odds.

And environment where Charles Mabika, given all the experience he has acquired working in football in this country over the years, can also become the Zifa president and his board can feature men like Chunga, Willard Mashinkila-Khumalo, Tangawarima, Wilfred Mukuna and Rose Mugadza - men and women with an identity in the game.

An environment where supporters' leaders don't make headlines and Warriors' hotels, when they are playing away, aren't turning into off-shore shebeens like what happened in Maputo.

Two weeks ago, former Warriors' defender, Alexander "Mr Cool" Maseko, a member of the Dream Team, was asked by a B-Metro journalist to name the person he considered the best local football administrator he worked with during his time as a player.

"I still remember a lady by the name Rita Musekiwa, who worked at Zifa," said Maseko in his reply.

"She was on the ball and did not take sides. To her, selection for the national team did not hinge on whether one was from Bulawayo, Harare or any other place."

Now, Rita was just a simple woman, driven by her passion for the game, and played a big part in turning the Warriors into the Dream Team.

It didn't surprise us when Safa came knocking looking for her services and took her away from us.

Those are the people who knew what football was, and maybe that explains why we came so close to qualifying for the 1994 World Cup, and it's sad that in their place today we find some spin-doctoring wizards.

But let's not give up, let's keep the prayer, God will take care of everything. We need to feel the power of football.

Come on Warriors!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


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