2015 Africa Cup of Nations: The Tragedy of Zimbabwean Football

 

It is difficult to run away from issues pertaining to “Jogo Bonito”, the beautiful game, as the 2014 FIFA World Cup is officially here. However, a more sinister story is unravelling in the Southern Africa. It is the tragedy of Zimbabwean football. The once almost formidable regional powerhouse is no more. The Tanzanian “Taifa Stars” did the Zimbabweans a huge favour by hitting the last nails on the coffin of this once rising power of African football. Gone are the heady days of the “Dream Teams” that the country used to produce. Zimbabwe, unfortunately, is no longer that continuous conveyor belt of talent, which threatened to dazzle the Africa and the world.

This is ironic as the country has produced some of the finest players ever to grace the “beautiful game” in Africa. The country’s failure to qualify for the 2008, 2010, 2012 , 2013 and now 2015 Africa Cup of Nations is simply catastrophic not just for the Zimbabwean football but for the Council of Southern African Football Associations (COSAFA) region. It obviously means less representation of the region at the African premier football show-case next year.

The wise people say sometimes when one gets lost, it is better to re-trace one’s steps to try and find the way forward. History can recall that Zimbabwe has produced some of the finest outfield players in Africa.  The list goes on and on, Sunday  Chidzambwa, Misheck Chidzambwa, Shacky Tauro, Stanford “Stix” Mtizwa, Joel “Jubilee” Shambo, Ernest Mutano, Joseph Zulu, Mercedes  Sibanda, Gift Mupariwa, David Mandigora, Ephert Lungu,  Hamid Dhana, David Mwanza, Moses Chunga, Ephraim “Rock of Gibraltar” Chawanda, Willard “Mashinkila” Khumalo , Ian Gorowa,  Benjani  Mwaruwari, the brothers, Madinda, Adam and Peter Ndlovu. 

The aforementioned players, could have, in their heyday, played for any club in the world, be it Real Madrid, Manchester United Bayern Munich or Barcelona if the talent scouting of these clubs had been effective. 

The fact that most of them did not play in the European Leagues is not the players’ fault at all. It is only that as much as there were immensely gifted naturally, they never had the good fortune of being exposed to talent scouts and coaches from big European clubs like some of their Western African counterparts. 

World football actually was and is actually poorer because of the unfortunate marginalisation of these great Zimbabwean football outfield players just after the country’s independence.

In terms of goalkeepers, Zimbabwe was again blessed with some really world class talent in the form of Bruce Grobelaar, of the Liverpool fame, Peter Nkomo, Japhet Mparutsa, Brenner Msiska, Lucky Dube, Ernest Chirambadare, Emmanuel Nyahuma and Gift Muzadzi.   Most of these goalkeepers never got to play outside the borders of Zimbabwe or outside Africa but that does not dilute the incredible talent that they possessed. Now one would wonder what is the use of reminiscing about the “good old days”? This is important as those who know and saw the afore-mentioned players in action now appreciate how important it was for them to be exposed to bigger platforms for them to enrich the world game.

It is obvious that given the Tanzania debacle and huge embarrassment for Zimbabwean football that it has caused, there will be witch-hunting, recriminations, sharpening of swords to slaughter those responsible for the spectacular demise and downward spiral of the “beautiful game” in the country.  There is no doubt that Tanzania, on the basis of their performance deserved to advance to the next phase of the qualifying tournament for the 2015 AFCON in Morocco.

However, from a long-term sport development perspective, the Taifa Stars actually did Zimbabwean football a big favour. Instead of wallowing in self-pity or pointing accusing fingers at each other, the critical stakeholders in Zimbabwean football must now collectively go back to the drawing board. 

There is need to invest serious money in grassroots football development and ensure identification and nurturing of larger pools of talent for the Under-17, Under-20 and Under-23 teams for upcoming tournaments. Like in most countries, there is too much concentration on the senior national team to the detriment of all other structures and levels of development.  The 2015 All Africa Games, the Rio 2016 Olympic Football and 2018 World Cup qualifying tournaments are valuable opportunities for the Zimbabwe Football Association (ZIFA) to plan around.  Hopefully, private sponsors and other strategic partners will also come to the party to support the development of the game in Zimbabwe. There is no doubt that Zimbabwe can still produce world class talent like in the past. ZIFA just needs to reinvigorate the feeder systems into all levels of national team structures.

In addition, and more importantly, there are governance issues that need to be addressed. If these issues are not addressed, football in Zimbabwe will continue to wallow in the doldrums. The football leaders must also raise their game to keep pace with the dynamic changes in world football.  Although, the ZIFA can rightly be castigated for a lot of other things, in the aftermath of the Tanzania debacle, they should be credited for not playing a political game  and firing the head coach, Ian Gorowa. They have owned up to the fact that preparations for both legs of the Tanzania encounter were far less than satisfactory. In most cases, football associations hide behind the coach’s failures and blame him for everything going wrong in the game. This deliberate inability to criticise themselves is particularly worrying as football leaders constantly try to externalise blame and shift all responsibilities for their acts of commission or omission.  

Hopefully, the Zimbabwean football authorities can make further progress from their position of honest self-criticism and appraisal to take the game back to its former days of glory or even better. Ian Gorowa is one of the best young coaches in Africa. His track record in coaching speaks for itself. ZIFA must do all their best to support and develop him even further. His ambition and commitment to the development of Zimbabwean football and the success of the national teams is not in question.  The man just needs the necessary support systems to enable him to bring glory to this great football nation that has, sadly, been under-performing for a long time.

“Every dark cloud has a silver lining”, wise people have proclaimed. This is quite true for Zimbabwean football leaders.  They must wake up and smell the coffee! The authorities must forget the past and make meticulous plans for the future improvement of the game on and off the field of play. Failure to do so will bring consequences that are too ghastly to contemplate. Continuous mediocrity and failure are not options! Good luck to the Zimbabwean football leaders should they embark on a new trajectory in developing the game in this country where there is an embarrassment of riches in terms of abundance of raw football talent.

June 2014
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