Zim football and global dynamics

Sports Panorama: Enock Muchinjo

A REMARKABLE feat of Dynamos’ path to the African Champions League final in 1998 was the home-and-away victories over Nigerian champions Eagle Cement.

You might think that sounds unthinkable, given the status of football in both countries at that time.

At national level, Zimbabwe was, in all honesty, something of a joke where important football matters in the world were discussed.

Our national team, during those dark days, had never even qualified for the continent’s premier showpiece, the Africa Cup of Nations, or any major tournament.

In comparison, Nigeria already belonged to the elite of African football. Four years before Dynamos defeated their domestic game’s champions home (3-0) and away (1-0) in 1998, the Super Eagles had lifted the Africa Cup of Nations title in swashbuckling fashion in Tunisia.

Even more striking, in the same year Dynamos were bossing the West Africans’ best club side two decades ago, Nigeria were in fact topping their group at the World Cup finals in France — along the way defeating Spain and Bulgaria to eliminate both European nations from the tournament in the first round.

Why such contrasting fortunes existed is hardly rocket science.

None of Nigeria’s 22-member squad at France ’98 played club football at home, and indeed the best players of most of the top African national teams at that time had broken into the European leagues at very young ages.

It follows, then, that those that stayed at home were, quite frankly, the lesser skilled players who did not have the right stuff to make the grade in Europe.

Also consider the fact that a significantly fewer African players, 20 years or so ago, broke onto the European market compared to the present era.

How then this affected the standards of African domestic leagues was that a lot of the players remaining at home, confronted with the reality that they might never strike deals abroad in their careers, ended up just fading away. It lowered the standard of the game in championships across the continent.

Things have since changed on the continent.

With more money than ever before flowing into football, it means the world’s number one game has strengthened its position as the sport of choice on the planet.

More people than ever are playing football across the globe. Enjoyment aside, money is, of course, the greatest lure.

Unlike in the past, good players in leagues across the African continent — who haven’t reached Europe — now stay in the game at home, hoping for that life-changing breakthrough.

Several thousands of such players throughout Africa await that opportunity, an opportunity that may never come, but all the same one that is worth the pursuit.

Because of that, the face of African football has changed. The gap — as reflected by the results and quality of football in the inter-club continental competitions — has been closed quite significantly.

Guinean club Horoya FC, who have just completed a Champions League double over Zimbabwe’s FC Platinum, are one of such outfits across the continent that are home to the several thousands of young footballers still hoping to take their talents to the next level, to the riches of Europe.

That a club like Horoya has done the double over highly-rated Platinum should not surprise anyone at all.

Football’s popularity across the world is at an all-time high. The number of those playing and watching it has almost tripled.

Other sporting disciplines are, in fact, losing talented people to football. It is a disaster for the other disciplines, of course. But I am worried there is not much anybody can do for as long as football’s financial muscle continues to rule the roost.

During a youth tournament last year, the headmaster of a top Zimbabwean private boys’ school did not hide his annoyance at a remark by a guest that football was a “minority” sport at his school.

Quite the contrary, he retorted. Football now in fact attracts the largest number of boys in any sport at the school.

What is the reason behind this?

Money, of course.

These kids have grown up in the age of wealthy superstar footballers — Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Neymar — guys earning in excess of US$25 million in a single year.

Compare with rugby, an even more physically demanding sport for that. Israel Folau, the Australia and Waratahs poster boy, raked in just US$1,7 million in 2018 as the highest paid rugby player in the world.

This is of course pittance in the eyes of world football’s mega-rich stars.

Yet for a rugby player this is quite a windfall — and with the legendary All Black Dan Carter coming slightly behind at around US$1,5 million last year — this kind of money is even being celebrated in world rugby circles, some kind of financial revolution in a sport that never used to pay those amounts.

It is when you consider all these factors that it makes a whole lot of sense when Farai Mupasiri, for example, a very gifted fly-half straight out of Lomagundi College, trades his wizardry on the rugby field for the training ground of Dynamos Football Club.

The magnetism of The Beautiful Game has never been greater than what it is now, and with that the balance of power tends to shift accordingly.

Let’s also capitalise as a nation.