Harare not your home

BY MIKE MADODA 

AS Zimbabwe champions FC Platinum prepare to take on Senegalese outfit ASC Jaraaf in the second-leg of their CAF Confederations Cup tie in Dakar, they do so on the back foot having lost the first-leg in Harare. The Zvishavane side who have been flying the flag for Zimbabwe on the continent over the last couple of seasons, are playing in the Confederations Cup after they were elbowed out of the Champions League by Tanzanian side Simba, who played dirty both on and off the field to put paid to any designs FC Platinum had of a third appearance in the group stage of the prestigious competition.

Norman Mapeza’s side appeared destined for progress after defeating the visitors 1-0 at the National Sports Stadium. That they failed to score more than just the one goal, was a result of their own profligacy in front of goal, rather than the tenacity of the opponent.

Perfect Chikwende who swapped sides after the tie, scored on the day, but also failed to take a relatively easy chance later on that could have changed the dynamics of the second leg and seen FC Platinum visiting Dar es Salaam in a position of considerable strength.

Now, if there is one place where home advantage counts, it is Africa. Simba’s decisive second leg victory showed us that. The Tanzanian money bags used every resource at their disposal to turn the tie. From the more rudimentary intimidation tactics to the more sophisticated methods that saw the weaponisation of Covid-19 test results, they controlled their home environment for good and for bad. And judging by how the Zimbabwean champions lost their heads in the heat of battle, it is fair to say, the game was lost even before the first controversial call on that forgettable afternoon.

It takes more than just a good squad and brilliant tactics to conquer the continent. Zimbabwe football’s most successful team in CAF competitions is Dynamos who reached the 1998 Champions League final, to cap a campaign that has lived long in the memory of those who witnessed it. The epic campaign that began with victory over Malawi’s Telecom Wanderers, took the Glamour Boys past Mozambique’s Ferroviario, Eagle Cement of Nigeria, Tunisian giants Etoile du Sahel and Ghana’s Hearts of Oak, to a two-legged final with Cote d’Ivoire’s ASEC Mimosas, then in their pomp. Just 90 minutes from what would have been a remarkable triumph, the Sunday Chidzambwa coached side lost 4-2 in Abidjan after playing out a goalless draw in the first-leg in Harare.

Chidzambwa’s tactical masterpieces were well complimented by heroic performances from the likes of Memory Mucherahohwa, George Mandizvidza, Kaitano Tembo and Makwinji Soma-Phiri. But many believe that even that might not have been enough, were it not for the Dynamos faithful that turned Harare blue and white, transforming the National Sports Stadium into a near-impregnable fortress. Packed to the rafters with a vociferous, often boisterous crowd, it was a place where even the best on the continent came and succumbed.

It has been 22 years since those heady days and the closest this generation of football fans has ever come to experience anything quite as electric, was the visit of Orlando Pirates to play FC Platinum. The Soweto giants brought Bulawayo to a standstill as arguably the biggest crowd seen at Barbourfields since the turn of the century, turned Emagumeni into a carnival atmosphere. It was the only ticket in town, but tragically, the wrong town. What should have been Zvishavane’s party, Mandava’s crowning moment, was happening 180 km away — far from home.

And what should have been an uncomfortable afternoon for Pirates looked more like a homecoming for the Buccaneers as the few FC Platinum fans that had made the great trek into Bulawayo were crammed into the away end — the rest of the stadium, a sea of black and white.

Twenty-four months down the line and the Zimbabwe champions continue to play their CAF home matches away from Mandava after it was declared unfit to host matches at that level.

After four campaigns on the continent, the stadium’s deficiencies have not been addressed and it seems the champions are no closer to playing at home than they were when they won their first championship. The only difference for FC Platinum, has been a change of venue to Harare’s National Sports Stadium after Barbourfields fell foul of CAF’s dreaded inspectors.

That there seems no solution in sight, is a damning indictment on the most glamorous institution in Zimbabwean football. Perhaps the comfort of rented lodgings has lulled FC Platinum into a false sense of security and blinded them to the obvious benefits that come with playing at home: the spur given by a full stadium of your own fans; the difference familiarity would make to the psyche and confidence of their players; being in control of the environment — something of critical importance, as Simba showed them in Dar es Salaam. And let us not forget the town of Zvishavane that would receive an undoubted uplift of its potential football economy, bringing in real returns to the formal and informal sectors.

So, as FC Platinum attempt a comeback at the Stade de Diaraf in Dakar — and many hope it will be successful, the champions need reminding: no matter what joy or perceived comforts the National Sports Stadium may bring, Harare is not your home.