PRETTY ironic (is it not?) that the first Africa Cup of Nations since the ouster of Issa Hayatou should be in Cameroon, home country of the deposed strongman who ruled African football with an iron fist for nearly three decades.
Panorama Sports with Enock Muchinjo
For us in Zimbabwe — having played perhaps the most central role in dismantling the empire so solidly erected by Hayatou — it sends bad memories flooding back.
Who can forget the collective national anger and dejection when it was announced by Hayatou’s team at the Confederation of African Football (Caf) headquarters that the 2000 Africa Cup of Nations would no longer be held in Zimbabwe due to, as told to the world, the slow pace of groundwork and sub-standard infrastructure.
It was a bout of anger that finally burst out some 17 years later, a strong feeling of resentment that would breed brutal effectiveness in the fight against Hayatou — from the unlikeliest of sources.
Zifa president Phillip Chiyangwa was nowhere near football politics around the turn of the millennium when Hayatou’s vicious hand wrested the 2000 Afcon tournament away from Zimbabwe.
But no sooner had Chiyangwa assumed power in both Zimbabwean and Southern African football, than he was getting together with like-minded African football leaders, and launching a strong-willed onslaught to unseat the seemingly unmovable Hayatou at the ballot box.
Putting his head on the block, hurricane Chiyangwa became the face and symbol of a unified African project, bringing a carefree, yet daring approach to what looked like a quietly but efficiently orchestrated campaign.
Facing the biggest threat to this stay at the helm of African football, Hayatou even tried to silence Chiyangwa by charging him with “destabilising” the continental governing body, but it would only prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, with Madagascar’s Ahmad winning the watershed election at congress in Ethiopia in March this year.
Stunned by the defeat, Hayatou’s camp has tried to have the result annulled on claims of vote-buying and other ethics breaches.
But faced with his own mammoth fights against corruption charges, it is highly unlikely that his allegations against the new African football leadership will stick.
And we are unlikely to see the big fella at any of the matches at Cameroon 2019. But it will be a reminder, for Zimbabwe, of how perhaps instead of it being Hayatou’s Cameroon hosting, it should have been us or any other country had the balance of power shifted much earlier.
But the past is past, the future is now.
Zimbabwe now appears to have an influential role insofar as how the game is governed on the continent.
Hayatou is history, a great opportunity now to take a hard look at ourselves.
True, Hayatou’s rule became even more flawed and detrimental with each passing year. It was about time he exited the stage, and the voters rightly so showed him the way out in Ethiopia.
But the biggest grudge we held against Hayatou, taking away the 2000 Africa Cup of Nations from us, could be seen differently now with the benefit of hindsight. Were we ready to host a tournament of that magnitude at that time?
Football infrastructure in the country was and — still is — in a state of decay.
Months before we were scheduled to host the tournament, Sakubva Stadium, one of the four venues earmarked by the organisers, was upside down and under reconstruction.
The other three venues were also in dire need of major facelifts. The authorities did not see the need, though.
Where even some of the most developed nations built new facilities to complement existing infrastructure for tournaments, the men at Zifa back then saw a fine set of stadia in Zimbabwe.
Only last month Chiyangwa was declaring Zimbabwe’s readiness to bid for major tournaments in the near future.
For his own sake, I hope he is not deriving confidence from those ancient structures that are the National Sports Stadium, Rufaro and Barbourfields. Football infrastructure in this country is awfully bad.
Last week, I switched channels to the delayed broadcast of a Division One match played at Turk Mine in Matabeleland North.
The shockingly uneven pitch was a shade of brown on most parts of the clay-laden playing field — a match venue for a division just below the country’s top-flight league!
The commentator kept calling it a stadium. It is rather a footballer’s graveyard. The greatest mystery is how there are not that many horrible injuries on those kind of surfaces.
The situation is the same throughout the country with our grounds.
What we require in Zimbabwe right now are new facilities to meet international standards. If Chiyangwa’s tenure is to be viewed as a success, visible strides in this area must be taken.
We have seen some less attractive countries than ours hosting reasonably successful Africa Cup of Nations tournaments in the past. The reason is simple: basics.
Hospitable hosts, sufficient hotel beds, beautiful countryside and a great nightlife; you tick all the boxes. It makes for a most memorable experience.
But do not forget it is still essentially a football tournament, not a travelling fanfare or street carnival.