Sorry to burst your bubble

Sports Panorama :mike madoda

ZIMBABWE football is at a crossroads. Nigh on a year without competitive football and six months without training has left many teams and players in limbo. Premier Soccer League (PSL) champions FC Platinum have been given the unenviable task of flying the flag for Zimbabwe in Africa without so much as a kick in anger.

Up against the cream of the continent and without adequate preparations, one can be forgiven for thinking theirs, is a campaign doomed to fail.

It would be grossly unfair to point a finger at anyone for the near shambles our national pastime finds itself in. The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing near global shutdown are well documented. Zimbabwe was not spared and football especially so, after government classified it in the high-risk category of sporting activities that posed the greatest danger of spreading the coronavirus to participants. In football you train as you play and the measures put in place were understandable.

But six months down the road, there has been a disquiet and unease as months of inactivity have taken their toll. Recent maneuvers by the Zimbabwe Football Association (Zifa) to wake the game up from slumber were met with universal acclaim from fans starved of action, but less so from the keen observer. The prescriptive nature of Zifa’s intervention whereby the PSL is having to sign-off plans presented to them by the association, has been brought into question with some feeling that not enough consultation was done with the football family to get a more accurate picture of the true state of the game. A flawed plan without the sincere buy-in of all key stakeholders, borders on being a public relations (PR) stunt with no real or meaningful benefits. The more cynical would even suggest it is a knee-jerk reaction to upcoming national assignments, which could see Warriors coach Zdravko Logarusic with no local players to pick from.

Globally, the biggest challenge facing football, even in light of recent attempts to get back on the field of play, is financial. The loudest conversation in the United Kingdom, home to the lucrative Premier League, is how to alleviate the plight of the teams that occupy the base of their football pyramid. Their acknowledgement that the game is more than the glitz and glam of Anfield and Old Trafford is a lesson we can do with here, where talk on the return of football has largely centred on the PSL, with very little if anything planned for our lower divisions, area zones, schools, academies and, the oft neglected, women’s game.

Yes, we have seen Zifa, spurred by funds from Fifa, come to the aid of the four regions that make up Zimbabwe football, with the northern, southern, central and eastern regions each receiving ZW$1 625 000 (US$20 000). While the association cannot be accused of doing nothing, is it enough? Most sporting institutions face the same challenges; deterioration of equipment, degradation of facilities and the mandatory health monitoring that will surely be a part of any protocol drawn up to guide the return to action — all of which will come at cost. If Zifa has a genuine interest in the return of the game, it needs a more robust intervention.

And when football does return, Zimbabwe must cut its own path. This pandemic has seen unique situations in almost every country with no one-size-fits-all solution.

The Sadc region provides us with three case studies. Tanzania was quick to declare themselves Covid-free and a full league programme was given the greenlight. Zambia’s return to action was premature and not guided by scientific considerations, which led to an embarrassing U-turn. South Africa completed their league campaign by going the route of Europe. A bio-bubble was established, necessitated by an infection rate that was one of the highest in the world. It would be rash to adopt or borrow any of these models as our situation is largely different. We need to consider our own infection rates and the prevalent circumstances.

While keeping in mind that Covid-19 is here to stay, at some point, life must go on. We will never go back to the way things were — this pandemic has irrevocably changed the way we live. If we can at least agree on that premise, our discussions and the questions we ask around what form football takes on its return will become substantive. Will there be social distancing until the vaccine is available? Do we adopt ticketless systems with minimal human interaction? Will facemasks be mandatory — especially if you consider that there are some medical authorities who are saying they may need to be worn for at least three years even if a vaccine is produced?

The answers to these and other questions will help Zifa come up with a made-to-measure solution for the good of the game. Talk of bio-bubbles is great, but how feasible are they and are they even necessary? These are difficult times that call for difficult decisions, but also creative solutions that go beyond propping up the elite level of competition. The return of football must not be stage-managed, but managed well. The interests of those that occupy the bottom of our football pyramid, the very lifeblood of the local game, must be recognised and protected.

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