Football’s spin doctors should rest up

INDEPENDENT SPORTS VIEWWith Dumisani Muleya

THE 2006 World Cup/African Cup of Nations qualifier between Zimbabwe and Nigeria came and went. The result was hugely disappointing –

that is if you were one of those who in the first place hoped against hope that a substandard team could pull a surprise against a classy side.


As media reports and analysts pointed out, there were many factors that led to Zimbabwe’s crushing 0-3 defeat by Nigeria at home.


Some of the factors included poor preparations, indiscipline in the camp, technical limitations, mediocrity on the pitch and propaganda. Zimbabwe simply did not have enough preparations for the big game against a Nigeria side that was training for a longer time in Europe where there are better facilities.


There was also chaos in the Zimbabwean camp as coaches and players reportedly approached the game with a reckless dereliction of duty. The coaches and players reportedly competed in having fun instead of getting ready for the game which strangely enough they dreamt of winning.


The danger of indiscipline escalating into anarchy at camp is particularly acute when a large number of players – including coaches – are involved.

The poor preparations and lawlessness in the Zimbabwean camp were not helped by the glaring technical shortcomings of the coaching department. Coaches failed to put an effective system into place and their formation – if ever there was any – collapsed at kick-off.


The technical department, as usual, thought in a box. There were no relevant changes and creativity at all in the team. The same tired players were recycled even though Rahman Gumbo had been promising to sprinkle the squad with upcoming youngsters or young stars. He only knows why, but it no longer matters anymore.


The players themselves were not up to scratch on the pitch. They were either hopelessly ineffective or simply confused, while some were literally playing around.


We have been in denial for a long time about the quality of our players but now I think it is time for reflection after things fell apart. We have to rebuild and consolidate the centre.


It seems when it comes to football, and perhaps other pursuits as well, we have a cult of mediocrity which some defend dogmatically. I know some people don’t agree but I think, apart from the administration shambles and poor coaches, we also don’t have good players. After Sunday’s game I met one of our local senior sports journalists and this issue came up in our discussion. I said we lost partly because we just don’t have good players.

In reaction he said we lost because we don’t have an experienced coach, which I agreed with, but he insisted we do have good players. I asked him one simple question: “If Zimbabwean players are good enough, as you claim, why are they not making it into big leagues in Europe?”


He said we have Benjani Mwaruwari in the French League 1. I said fair and fine, but Mwaruwari had to wait for Djibril Cisse to leave AJ Auxerre for Liverpool for him to play. How about the others? I asked the gentleman. He then gave me a dead bat of an answer.


The fellow claimed Nigeria had more players at the highest level in Europe than Zimbabwe largely because it was nearer to Europe! Everybody burst into convulsing laughter because that was as ridiculous and hilarious as football stories that have been appearing mostly in one of our local state-owned dailies.


Which brings me to the propaganda issue. Before and after the Super Eagles landed in Harare, there was a glut of publicity about the game. Football spin-doctors were busy at work, fanatically churning out hard sell in the build-up to the match that in their warped minds could only be won by the home side.


One reporter, whose stories people said were exceedingly alarming not only for their fanaticism but also shallowness, actually declared: “Nigeria can get three points in Lagos but not in Harare.”


Of course, that was not true as it later turned out. Everyone examining the game with an open mind and, indeed without being overzealous, would definitely have known that Nigeria could win in Harare.


I strongly wanted Zimbabwe to win, but I had no doubt in my mind whatsoever that the reality was likely to be different. We had endless arguments in our newsroom and drinking bars in town about what the result was likely to be but I was convinced it would be a defeat.


My reasons were straightforward. We had relatively poor preparations, an inexperienced coaching department and lower quality players. That was the reality as I saw it. This meant that we could only win, I thought sceptically, through sheer luck or surprise. But then I reckoned this could not be a formula of beating probably the most skilful side on the continent.


However, some fellow journalists were in absolute denial and waxed lyrical. They ratcheted up propaganda to new levels and beat their own scandalous records. One had the temerity to write: “We have got our talent, Shingirai Kawondera (who was patronising nightclubs) . . .

Kawondera is the real deal, add to that Benjamin Mwaruwaru then you have weapons of mass destruction, the type that would get George Bush casting his gaze over this side in fear.”


As if the folly of his bunkum was not enough, the reporter single-mindedly went on: “Can we really get worried about Yakubu (the scorer of one of the three goals) who plays for an irrelevant team (Portsmouth in the English Premier League) . . .”


A moment’s reflection would have told any reasonable person that such obvious bias could not possibly represent the truth. But obviously the reporter did not allow that and propaganda was thus churned out with great rapidity.


The balderdash which passed under the charade of patriotism – which by definition should be love for one’s country directed by critical thought and not blind fanaticism – was sufficient to make all decent people blush when they were subsequently disillusioned.


One journalist also wrote: “There is (Austin) Okocha but we have Tinashe (Nengomasha) and the boy should just show the world he is probably the next Okocha.” He went on to bemoan the absence of Kaitano Tembo, who is mostly no longer playing for his team SuperSport in South Africa, from the squad.


Yet another reporter came up with a profoundly flawed write-up listing 10 reasons why Okocha would not score and why the Zimbabwean captain Peter Ndlovu would do so.


One of the reasons – which clearly lacked reason – was that fans would allegedly jeer Okocha but cheer Ndlovu.


We all now know what happened. It was actually the opposite – except of course if you can’t distinguish jeering from cheering!


Some writers concluded their articles with the mantra “Go Warriors Go!” as if to advertise their gullibility.


But it was no wonder that the same journalists turned around after the rude awakening and started writing soberly, which they should have done in the first place to avoid creating a crisis of expectation.


The point here is that some of our journalists created a frenzied media hype which, as Nigeria coach Christian Chukwu rightly said, only succeeded in putting Zimbabwe under pressure, while motivating the Super Eagles.


This is not to say we must not support the Warriors. Let’s do so but facts about games must not be distorted, relevant circumstances should not be concealed and we must not engage in works of fiction.


Prominent soccer commentator Charles Mabika was rabidly attacked for merely acknowledging Okocha’s indisputable skills and the reality of the Nigerian superiority in that game by a friend of mine and fellow journalist who weirdly thought that his commentary was “unmistakably tailored to give the visitors an upper hand even when the match was still far from being decided”.


Only God knows how a live commentary can give players on the pitch “an upper hand” when they are not even listening. My good friend also went on to make an unfortunate ethnic-minded slur against South Africa’s Zulu people when there was absolutely no connection or need to.


But the problem that we have as a country is that we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious should be the first duty of all intelligent men, as George Orwell once observed.


Some reporters would seek to obfuscate issues because they know that the terrible thing about the quest for truth, which they find sometimes inconvenient, is that you risk finding it when you really don’t want to.


As such for them it becomes easy to resort to a well-packaged web of lies – statistical lies – that make the truth seem utterly preposterous and its speakers, like Mabika, raving lunatics.


But to ignore the evidence, like some did before the match, and hope that it cannot be true, is more evidence of deceit than patriotism.

dmuleya@yahoo.com