The 2013 Castle Lager Premier season has been fascinating; it has provided enthralling entertainment, with plenty of drama.
There has been an irresistible sense of purpose from all the clubs in a tough league where 25% of the teams get the chop.
Motor Action have been reinvented in the second half of the season after an injection of youth while after a bad start, Tripple B, Monomotapa and Hwange -- all in the relegation scrap -- are shedding blood and sweat for a every point.
At the top Dynamos seemingly hit top gear two months ago, but are finding it tough this term with no less than five teams pushing hard for the title.
Highlanders have had a topsy-turvy season but lead the race again, while Caps for once are not involved in the relegation battle, with Lloyd Mutasa showing encouraging signs at FC Platinum that the club could finally land major silverware. Harare City have been shining.
The top four Highlanders, Dynamos, Harare City and FC Platinum have all led the race at some point. The Platinum miners defied the weight of history and beat DeMbare for the first time on Wednesday.
More twists and turns are expected in the tight tussle for the title with only six matches left as the margin of error drastically falls. Tens of thousands of fans throng many a stadia around the country for entertainment of high quality, yet those who provide it are languishing in abject poverty.
The riveting drama on the pitch masks the problems that afflict local football, far from the public glare.
While all over the world football has continued to grow as a source of livelihood and riches, Zimbabwe's sorry story continues. Local players can hardly afford a decent pair of boots.
If a player plies his/her trade locally until retirement without any foreign league dalliance, and that player relies on football alone, the player is doomed.
The current season has been blighted by industrial action at Caps, Monomotapa (several times), Motor Action as well as Shabanie Mine.
Monomotapa cannot even afford to give players transport allowances to report for training, and have been forced at times to meet on match day.
Yet despite all the problems these players have continued squeeze out every last ounce of ability and commitment.
All the fame the players have among local fans comes with no fortune, with salaries pegged to as low as US$150 per month for some teams, and it is these same teams that notoriously skip payment of salaries. Figures revealed after an IndependentSport inquiry into the matter are a source of heart-rending.
Beitbridge-based Tripple B players whose salaries are pegged at US$250 per month get a measly travelling allowance US$3 per player.
It is only the company-owned or sponsored teams that consistently pay players on time and in full, but they too pay salaries way below the poverty datum line of US$500, with most paying around US$300 per month.
Teams like Dynamos and Highlanders, funded by BancABC, pay salaries ranging between US$400 and US$800 depending on how one negotiates.
FC Platinum pays some of the highest salaries that range from US$600 to US$1 400 per month.
For teams like Motor Action, Monomotapa and Tripple B, bonuses are pegged at US$100 - US$150 per win and as low as US$50 for a draw.
Triple B has so far won just three matches so far this season, while Motor Action and Monomotapa have won four and six respectively.
Dribs and drabs
Caps United are also infamous for paying their players late and are on record blaming the fixure programme which has seen them play most of their home matches midweek, thus lowering attendance and revenue.
The signing-on fees are not impressive either, with some teams paying as little as US$700 which comes in dribs and drabs.
Some fruit and air time vendors clearly make more than what footballers earn. It's only at Dynamos, Highlanders, Harare City and FC Platinum where decent money is paid, but they too struggle to pay up on time and in full.
Motor Action tried to lure companies from the Buy Zimbabwe consortium, but nobody has bought the idea and they continue to suffer. Footballers Union of Zimbabwe (FUZ) secretary general Paul Gundani said the administrators should consider coming up with a smaller but well-sponsored league in addition to clubs being forced to prove financial stability before promotion.
"It should not just be a case of promotion for a club from Division One into the Premier league; I feel a committee should be set up that will investigate whether promoted teams have the financial backing to sustain a run in the elite league," said Gundani.
"Our top league should not just be elite in name; we should see the difference with lower leagues. Some clubs come in with the hope of surviving on gate takings but these cannot be entirely relied on especially for smaller clubs. If we cannot come up with 16 well-sponsored teams in the topflight, why not reduce the number so that the league is well sponsored and vibrant?"
The union has also proposed a special fund that would be paid by sponsors to all clubs each month, so that they can help teams pay salaries and travel costs.
"On top of the prize money we should have sponsors giving clubs something like US$7 000 which takes care of wages and travel expenses. The problem with some of the sponsorship is that it is mostly gobbled by administration expenses."
FUZ is urging Zifa to force clubs to come up with a minimum wage of US$750 through the labour court.
Some clubs have also come under fire for lack of transparency.
Dynamos, have their salary paid by their sponsor, but have always come under the spotlight over the figures they produce from their gates in comparison to the numbers in the stands.
At times Rufaro stadium fills to capacity, but reported figures rarely break the 20 000 barrier.
While Zifa is busy fighting the scourge of match fixing, nonpayment of wages and bonuses, paying trifling amounts compromises players to the extent of engaging in illegal acts.
Zifa chief executive officer said the issue of player remuneration can be sorted out through club licensing where teams are forced to present their bank accounts.
The mother body has also lined up a strategic planning meeting where clubs can give input and Zifa will try to force the idea of a minimum wage.
"It is important that the sponsor also comes up with a distress fund which can be used when clubs face challenges as we have seen this season," said Mashingaidze. "We should not allow c lubs to rely on gate takings; they should prove they have other sources of income before admission into the topflight."
The Castle Lager premier League is a popular movie, a blockbuster, but one where the main actors get peanuts while the producers get rich.