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Soccer is better down south

With Dumisani Muleya

CERTAINLY there is no invasion and a hostile takeover of Itai Dzamara’s column. I was invited sometime back to make contributions to this column simply because I

follow sport – in particular football – with great but measured passion.

I’m not a fanatic (I mean someone who does not change his mind and the subject – according to Winston Churchill) though. I only follow the world’s most popular sport with restrained enthusiasm and not warts and all as some of my colleagues do.

One of the most interesting debates currently going on in Zimbabwe is whether or not our local football premiership league is better than that of South Africa.

I have always enjoyed listening to different views on this subject – some weird and wonderful, others partisan and blinkered, some emotional and jaundiced and others just scandalously ignorant.

There is nothing wrong with any of these views. Indeed, even blissful ignorance – which I notice has of late become a hobby of one of our local sports editors on this issue – is okay because it is sometimes a matter of choice.

I had a bruising debate a fortnight ago with a former acting sports editor of the Sunday Mail at a local hotel on this issue. I have known the gentleman for some eight years now and I have always thought, with good reason I must say, that he is an informed and levelheaded fellow. I still do though I’m becoming increasingly doubtful.

His view on the subject matter was that the Zimbabwean league is better than the South African one. He argued until he was black and blue. I differed with him politely but strongly.

His argument was that the South African league was better organised and administered. He however claimed local players, even spent forces, excel when they get to South Africa because the league is weaker in football terms.

He also alleged that South African players do better than Zimbabwean ones when they go to Europe because they have better exposure and marketing. But in the final analysis he said the Zimbabwean league was better than the South African one.

My reaction was simple. I agreed with the gentleman on a number of points but certainly not on his conclusion. I said, and I’m glad this week I found a more qualified ally in that area in the form of Alois Bunjira, that the South African league is better than the Zimbabwean one right from administration, marketing, sponsorship and all the way down to the playing field!

Bunjira, one of our best players based in South Africa, arrived at the same conclusion in his weekly column last Sunday in the Standard. He had no doubt at all about this. I also do not have an iota of doubt about it.

First, let’s tackle the obvious issues and clear them. Generally most fair-minded people, not uninterested observers or cynical elements, would agree that the South African league has better organisation, management, marketing and sponsorship, which are key ingredients of professional football.

In addition, it has better facilities – stadia and training conveniences – than Zimbabwe. This narrows the argument to basically one issue: football on the pitch.

South African football clubs have in recent years bought some good players from the region and beyond. This applies particularly to the so-called Big Three – Kaizer Chiefs, Orlando Pirates and Mamelodi Sundowns.

Chiefs have players from Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), on top of good South African ones. Pirates also have players from Nigeria, Zimbabwe, the DRC and local talent. Sundowns have players from Zambia, Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe and local stars. The same applies to other teams, especially Ajax Cape Town.

Players from the region, in most cases who would have excelled in their respective domestic leagues but unable to go to Europe for one reason or another, are spread across the South African league.

Like Bunjira said, the captains of Zambia, Malawi, Gabon, Kenya and Lesotho are all playing in South Africa. During the current off-season South African clubs have signed players from reigning African Champions Enyimba of Nigeria and the best clubs in the DRC.

A good number of our national team players (at least 11 if we include those who have been in and out of the team) play in South Africa.

It’s now beyond ordinary and damned lies to claim that Zimbabwean players in South Africa are the mediocre ones. In fact, they are largely the best of our local talent – which is why they dominate our national team.

Thus it borders on statistical lies to argue otherwise. It’s not a walk in the park to play in South Africa. Only good players – not those perceived to be good because they were glorified by a partisan media – can make it there.

Those players who went to South Africa basking in snake oil publicity, like Tauya Murewa, Maxwell Dube and Nqobizitha Ncube were largely a flop. By contrast, those less publicised but good players like Tinashe Nengomasha and Charles Yohane have done well.

Bunjira summed it up this way: “Aspiring soccer stars must not be misled. SA is a good football destination. It’s springboard to Europe.” I would put it this way: The SA league is certainly the future of African football. If you look at it without prejudice, you are more likely to agree with Bunjira.

Foreign players improve the South African league whose foundation is underpinned by domestic players. This applies to many leagues around the world, although it has a negative effect of suppressing local talent.

By contrast, Zimbabwe’s has few foreign players who are by no means brilliant. It’s only recently that Highlanders, Dynamos and Caps United managed to sign some reasonably good Zambian players but they are not the quality that is in South Africa.

In any case, the ones who are here would most likely want to move to South Africa if they could get teams to play for, as was recently shown by the Clive Mwale example. Highlanders’ midfield linchpin, Charles Chilufya, has also made several attempts to break into the SA league, in vain. But he is one of the best locally!

If you look at Zambian players in South Africa – Colins Mbesuma, Rotson Kilambe, Gift Kampamba (until recently), Sashi Chalwe, Dennis Lota, to name but a few – they are undeniably of higher quality than the ones who are here.

Lota might have failed to reach the heights he was widely expected to – just like a host of local Zimbabwean players who were casualties of exaggerated media publicity – but he is still definitely a good striker. The only Zambian player of the highest quality to play in Zimbabwe in recent years was the late Derby Makinka.

Against this background, it is no surprise or accident that South African clubs have done far better than Zimbabwean ones in African competitions. At the moment South Africa still has three teams – Pirates, SuperSport and Santos – playing in African club competitions. Zimbabwean ones, AmaZulu and Dynamos, are already out.

In fact, the Ghanaian team, King Faysal, which humiliated Dynamos, were eliminated by an average South African side, Santos. Dynamos were seven years ago booted out of the then Africa Cup Winners’ Cup by a lowly South African club, Jomo Cosmos.

On top of that, Dynamos were a few years ago beaten by Pirates in the Vodacom Challenge Cup. Caps United, indisputably with one of their best sides since their formation, was beaten home and away by Pirates in 1997 after winning the league in 1996.

Pirates are former African champions. They won the then Africa Cup of Club Champions almost exclusively with local players. Chiefs are also former Africa Cup Winners’ Cup conquerors. Sundowns reached the African league champions final a few years ago.

Dynamos, the most successful Zimbabwean side in Africa, reached the final in 1998 after 18 years of failure!

South Africa’s Bafana Bafana, who only got re-admitted in international football towards the end of apartheid in 1992, are hugely successful compared to the Warriors. It started off with domestic players (of course foreign-based players were once locally based).

The team has won the African Cup and been to two World Cup finals. Bafana Bafana were African champions in 1996 using mostly locally based players. The team were also finalists in 1998 and quarter-finals a couple of times.

Meanwhile, the Warriors have only been to the African finals once in 24 years and through the backdoor. At the last finals Zimbabwe were booted out in the first round. South Africa did badly too but for a different reason.

If one considers this issue with a fair, and not a poisoned, mind, the argument that Zimbabwe’s league is better than South Africa’s rapidly collapses on its own! It gets reduced to trivial pursuit and preposterous propaganda – which is what it is anyway.

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