Champions, relegation decided on final day

> Robson Sharuko

HARARE-EXACTLY 50 years have passed since a football club from outside Zimbabwe’s two biggest cities, Harare and Bulawayo, won the domestic league championship and, as the race spills into final round of fixtures this weekend, FC Platinum have a chance of ending that lengthy wait in yet another dramatic finale to the marathon.

The Zvishavane platinum miners, who blew up a golden chance to win the championship five years ago when they crumbled under the weight of expectations at home to lose 0-1 to serial champions Dynamos, kept themselves in the race this year with a comprehensive 3-0 home victory over Bulawayo giants Highlanders in the penultimate match of the season.

Coached by former Zimbabwe captain and coach, Norman Mapeza, FC Platinum are two points adrift of leaders CAPS United who kept their lead at the top after edging Ngezi Platinum 1-0 at their National Sports Stadium fortress last Sunday.

Both clubs, who are chasing the championship, are on the road this weekend as the curtain comes down on a dramatic season with CAPS United playing in the Midlands capital, Gweru, against Chapungu, while FC Platinum face unpredictable Tsholotsho at Bulawayo’s Luveve Stadium on the same day.

And, to spice the occasions, both the front-runners take on clubs fighting for their lives in the domestic Premiership with Tsholotsho, who are only playing in their second season in the top-flight league, being the club that derailed Highlanders’ quest for honours by beating their illustrious rivals 2-1 a few weeks ago.

Last year, Tsholotsho – who play their games in Bulawayo as they wait for the completion of their stadium – surprised the pundits by holding FC Platinum, who were locked in a championship battle with eventual winners Chicken Inn, to a goalless draw at Luveve Stadium, in Round 24 of the campaign.

The then newboys then flexed their muscles by also holding Chicken Inn to a 1-1 draw in Bulawayo.

“Tsholotsho are a plucky team, especially in Bulawayo, and FC Platinum know they have a game on their hands against a side that deserves medals for their resilience in the past two years given they have, effectively, been playing all their matches away from home but, yet, they have found a way to beat relegation,” Zimbabwe National Soccer Supporters Association board member, Fortune “Giant” Bgwoni, told The Southern Times.

“They are a very stable club, have stuck with their coach Lizwe Sweswe in good and bad times, and they are likely to provide a tough hurdle for FC Platinum in the last game of the season.

“But, who can also say that Chapungu, in their backyard of Ascot, are easy prey? I think CAPS United know they also have a tough hurdle in Gweru and that only makes up for a fascinating ending to the championship race and that is what we, as the fans, really love.

“There will be tears, in the final weekend, and I think the club that handles the pressure better will emerge as champions and they deserve their crown because this has been a hard-fought campaign.”

The last time CAPS United were at Ascot Stadium, the home ground of Chapungu, they crashed to a 1-2 defeat in a league match at the hands of the Airforce of Zimbabwe side on August 29, last year, in Round 21 of the championship race.

That defeat sent alarm bells ringing in the CAPS United camp and caretaker coach Mark Mathe was re-assigned to his old role as assistant coach with club legend, Lloyd Chitembwe, being re-hired for another spell, as the head coach of the Green Machine.

Although the decision was criticised by some of the club’s fans, who felt Chitembwe was a lightweight coach incapable of turning around the fortunes of CAPS United, the former Zimbabwe international midfielder has silenced his critics by building a team that now needs just a victory in their final game to end 11 years of waiting for the league title.

If the United beat Chapungu, they will be champions, irrespective of the result from the match between Tsholotsho and FC Platinum, while even a defeat for CAPS United might be enough for them to be crowned champions should the Zvishavane side fail to win in Bulawayo.

Five years ago FC Platinum had even laid the stage for a grand party, inviting the area’s chiefs for the crowning ceremony and buying an eight-page supplement in a national newspaper congratulating themselves for being champions, amid huge expectations in Zvishavane that their team would power to glory.

But, on a sad afternoon for the miners, Dynamos staged a spectacular smash-and-grab mission to beat their rivals 1-0 and spoil the party for veteran coach Rahman Gumbo – who has won championships in Zimbabwe, Malawi and Botswana – whose misery was compounded by the fact that the goal that made all the difference was scored by their own man.

Defender Daniel Veremu, a pillar of strength in that FC Platinum campaign, was the villain as he turned the ball into his own net while striker Benjamin Marere, having been lured from Dynamos by the good life that the platinum miners offered to their players, missed an open goal late in the match.

The superstitious blamed fate. For there has not been a football club, from outside Harare and Bulawayo, which has won the domestic championship since St Paul’s Musami, a football team run by the Catholic-run mission in Murewa, with the late Father Antony Davis playing a leading role in its affairs.

St Paul’s won the Northern Zone championship in 1966 and took on Southern Zone winners Bulawayo Rovers in the battle for the national championship with the first leg in the City of Kings ending in 2-2 draw before the Murewa side won the second leg 3-2 at Glamis Stadium in Harare to be crowned national champions.

That St Paul’s team provided the country with some of its finest players, including the legendary George Nechironga, five-time winner of the Soccer Star of the Year award, and Jawet Nechironga – whose son George would also be crowned Soccer Star of the Year in 1990 after starring for CAPS United.

Since St Paul’s landmark triumph in 1966, many football clubs have tried and failed to emulate that success story with Rio Tinto, a powerful force of the ‘80s from Kadoma’s gold mine of Cam and Motor, only losing the championship race to Dynamos, on goal difference in 1983,

But in a year in which Leicester City defied the 5000-1 odds to be crowned champions of England, Iceland shocked the world with an impressive run at Euro 2016, reaching the quarter-finals and beating England along the way, and the Chicago Cubs won their first World Series baseball title in 108 years, the FC Platinum fans will be saying the sporting gods are on their side.

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