OBSERVANT followers of Zimbabwe top flight football have probably noticed a new fashion-sense about some smaller teams in the league.
gn=justify>Donning impressive uniforms labeled by international sportswear brands such as adidas and diadora, the players move about with apparent pride, and there is nothing around them which suggests amateurism. The substitutes and officials look neatly dressed as well on the bench in their matching team tracksuits. This is in sharp contrast to the big clubs such as Caps United and Dynamos, where the team bench is a sea of different sports brands and all types of dressing.
To a casual observer, it seems that the new clubs are basking in good times. But like a lot of other Zimbabweans, they are just trying to extract the best out of a bad situation.
There is almost an air of mystery how Zimbabwean clubs still manage to survive, with no funds coming into the clubs and having to deal with an inflation-ridden currency.
A current row over sponsorship between the biggest clubs in the league and the PSL management committee illustrates how the teams have lost patience over the state of affairs. Dynamos Football Club, one of the bigger clubs in the league which can manage “self-sponsorship” through gate takings, chalked up a cost bill of over a billion for the trip to Hwange a fortnight ago. Club secretary-general Keith Guzah said even for them, that is not feasible.
For the smaller clubs, it is a worse scenario.
Harare-based club Monomotapa are in their second season in the Premier Soccer League, and for all their show of flamboyance and remarkable blend of football, they have not realised meaningful revenue from the gates. Bekhitemba Ndlovu, the treasurer of Monomotapa, says the main predicament faced by the clubs was not that the league had no sponsor, as previous PSL sponsors did not provide operational costs during the season.
“The individual club sponsors are with us through the season and if it wasn’t them, we could not be here,” Ndlovu said.
“It’s a loss thing (running a football team). That money comes from our pockets. Even on the home games we need money. For example, if we are playing in Harare, we have to camp at a hotel on the eve of the game, and that requires about $160 million per night for the whole team.”
When Monomotapa played Railstars in Bulawayo three weeks ago, they splashed $280 million in lodging, food and transport costs. That is just about or even less than their gate takings for most of their games in a season.
In the absence of a proper sponsor, revenue from gate takings has been marked down as the lifeline for the clubs. It’s a life support system that is not working by the book.
“We are a small team in terms of crowds, so gate-takings are not enough,” he said. “We only get money when we play against Dynamos, Highlanders and to a smaller extent Caps United. When we hosted Dynamos at Rufaro a few weeks ago, we got well over a billion dollars. But then that money does not stay in the team. It covers up for the costs of the previous six games when we were not making money.”
It gets worse when they play teams who are also not crowd-pullers like themselves, a case in point their match with Shooting Stars a fortnight ago
“It’s a loss game,” Ndlovu said. “At the end of the day you have to pay the police, PSL and the medical services. Playing against smaller teams is a pain in the neck.”
Monomotapa, like the other smaller teams, are sponsored by a company whose only benefit from their involvement in football could only be some sort of corporate mileage or fulfillment derived from the game, otherwise they will really not be hanging around.
“Mileage is important, and we try to give our sponsor maximum mileage,” Ndlovu said. “But love for the game is a big thing. Our sponsor has the game at heart, and that is what drives us.”
Despite the telling difference in support bases, the PSL clubs face the same operational problems. Highlanders, one of the few well-supported teams in the league, cannot retain profitability despite their consistent good home crowds.
Although club chairman Ernest Sibanda acknowledged the effort of some external club sponsors, the team still had to extend a begging bowl to its registered club members countrywide.
“Our club members pay an affiliation fee and do look after the team,” Sibanda said. “They help us a lot, especially with accommodation when we go to Harare and other towns. We are currently doing well in gate takings because we are playing well. But with inflation things are ever hard for us.”
The collapse of service deliverance and shortage of commodities has also wreaked havoc on football in Zimbabwe. The shortage of fuel in particular has affected Masvingo United, who are sponsored by a public transport operator. Masvingo had an outstanding season last year, coming close to winning a stunning league title. This season they are going through a bad patch, as confidence in the team has been hampered by money issues.
“Things are tough,” said Nathan Asidi, the Masvingo treasurer. “We are just trying to do the best that we can, but things are really tough my brother.”