Phew, English premier league ends!

The region has been batting against falling attendance at its top-flight football matches and while economic difficulties and questionable standards on the pitch have been blamed for this, it is also true that that lure of the English Premiership has had a massive impact. And now that the English Premiership has gone to sleep for the next four months, the football bosses in the region believe they could cash in with more fans coming to watch their leagues. While the English Premiership has always been popular in this region, interest has soared over the last 10 years with the advent of sports bars that screen live matches broadcast via satellite. Millions of people across the region visit these sports bars every weekend during each season to watch their favourite teams in action. Manchester United ‘ one of the world’s biggest football clubs remains the most popular English team in this region and sales of their replica red jerseys, with the Vodafone brand on its chest, is brisk business from Cape Town to Kinshasa. Football fans across the region wear more United replica jerseys than those from their own local teams, even on match days. Such United stars like Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ruud Van Niestelrooy are big name stars across Southern Africa. London giants Arsenal, who employ more black players than any other team in the Premiership, also have strong support across the region and their star Thierry Henry is very popular. “I believe that a lot of people like Arsenal because they identify with their black players and they are largely seen as a team that is not racist,” said local football analyst Shepherd Chiware. “The other day I saw black American film producer Spike Lee being interviewed on BBC Hardtalk and he was wearing an Arsenal jersey. “So it’s not only the people in Southern Africa who probably identify with Arsenal simply because of this team’s willingness to advance the cause of black players but a number of blacks around the world. “I have been to London on a number of occasions and I have realised that the black population in that city symapthise more with Arsenal because they identify with the players in that team. “The advancement of black players in the English Premiership over the last decade has been one of the silent revolutions of our time and has had a huge impact in making this league very popular across Africa. “In the ’80s, when they used to screen Big League Soccer on our screens, there were very few blacks in the English Premiership, notably Viv Anderson and John Fashanu. “There were a lot of stories about racial cases in the Premiership and John Barnes ‘ probably the greatest black player to feature in the Premiership ‘ was not accepted in Merseyside despite being the star forward at Liverpool. “I remember that those who were opposed to Liverpool’s decision to sign Barnes even started calling this team Niggerpool and this was really sad. “Times have changed now and attitudes have softened over time and the influx of black players in the Premiership have boosted its appeal within the African community. “I think the Premiership clubs now know that it is important for them to also bring in the other communities and that is why we now see an influx of Chinese players because that is also the market that they have targeted.” Another London club Chelsea, who have now won back-to-back league championships under Portuguese coach Jose Mourinho, have also seen their popularity rise within the region. Already the Tanzania Football Federation is in talks with Chelsea to try and find ways of how the English champions can help revive the country’s football fortunes which have been battered of late. The Tanzanians also asked another London club Tottenham to help them. Manchester United are coming to South Africa soon and will play in the annual Vodacom Challenge Tournament while Tottenham were there two years ago. “A lot of people in this region also like Liverpool a lot and the team’s support is very high in Zimbabwe where I believe they are only second to Manchester United,” said Chiware. Liverpool’s massive support base in Zimbabwe is linked to Bruce Grobbelaar, the local goalkeeping hero who starred for the Reds during the glory period of the 80s when they were the best team in the world. Grobbelaar joined Liverpool from Canadian side Vancouver Whitecaps in 1979 after having played for local side Highlanders. He was an immediate hit with the club and won a number of league championships and the European Cup -emerging as the hero in the final against Roma in 1984 that was decided on the penalty shootout lottery. Nicknamed The Jungleman because of his African roots, Grobbelaar turned on a fine show during that shootout as Liverpool powered their way to victory. He came back home to play for Zimbabwe in the ’90s -featuring prominently in Reinhard Fabisch’s Dream Team that came within just one game of qualifying for the 1994 World Cup finals. “Zimbabweans will always remember Bruce Grobbelaar and that is why they also like Liverpool a lot. I believe that is natural,” said Chiware. “You can see right now that Portsmouth are also popular in Zimbabwe simply because Benjani Mwaruwari plays for that team. “When they were fighting relegation they had a lot of sympathy from the Zimbabweans because they also wanted Benjani to stay in the Premiership. “I don’t know but I think there is also a big number of Zambians who care about Portsmouth simply because Collins Mbesuma is at that club.” But all this popularity comes with a cost to the domestic leagues. Thousands of fans have become so hooked to the English Premiership to such an extent that they no longer have the appetite to watch their own local teams. This has sent attendance figures crashing across the region to an all-time low. “It’s a question of choice,” said Chiware. “The quality that we see on television during the English Premiership is better and the fans simply want to watch good football. Of course, it’s unfair for anyone to expect that local teams and their players can match that quality because we don’t have the money to buy the very good players while our best stars end up playing in Europe. “But I think that the local leagues will not die and they simply have to learn to live with their competition.” Last week the English Premiership ended for yet another season with Chelsea being crowned league champions for the second year running. The London club crushed Manchester United 3-0 at Stamford Bridge ‘ two games before the end of the season ‘ to win the title. Two Kenyan men were fined by a court in Nairobi for their violent behaviour when they fought and disturbed peace at a sports bar as they watched the match. The Sports Diner in Harare – which has a number of huge screens – charged its patrons Z$300 000 (about US$3) for them to watch that game. That is about twice what the cheapest ticket costs to watch a local Premiership game but still the patrons paid their way into the club. The local Premiership chiefs are concerned but they believe that their league is beginning to show signs of growth after years of stagnation and they see the English Premiership break as a chance to consolidate their gains. “Anyone who does not believe that the English Premiership does not give direct competition to us is not a football administrator,” said the local Premier Soccer League fixtures-secretary Godfrey Japajapa. “The reality my friend is that most of the fans who watch our games are also in love with their English football and every week they have a hard choice to make. “As leaders we simply need to acknowledge that and try to find the best way we can go around that problem so that we don’t put our clubs at risk. “Clubs need the funds they get from the gates for them to live and we should be aware of the competition that is posed by the English Premiership. “Luckily here in Zimbabwe, we believe that our league is set for some exciting times and we have seen real growth, in terms of spectator interest, this year. “We have a number of exciting players who have changed things around and the likes of Evans Gwekwerere have helped the situation. The two big teams ‘ Dynamos and Highlanders ‘ are having full houses every week and we have to work on the small teams to help them survive. Hopefully now that the English Premiership is on a break we can work to consolidate the gains we have had this season.” The World Cup is coming along soon and there will be more competition for the regional leagues again. “The World Cup comes just once in four years and I don’t think that it is something that should concern us really. “But it is the English Premiership that poses the biggest challenge,” said Japajapa. For now the leagues of Southern Africa can afford a sigh of relief and expect improved spectator numbers in the coming weeks. Those who coined the phrase ‘ when the cat is away the mice can play ‘ must have had this scenario in mind.

May 2006
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