Earlier this season Peter Ndlovu returned from a family funeral in Zimbabwe two hours before his club, Sheffield United, were due to take on Rotherham United in the First Division. Ndlovu came off the bench to score the gameâ€™s only goal. Whatever issues preoccupied him on the trip home to a country facing political meltdown and desperate food shortages, they were not enough to distract him in the midst of a south Yorkshire derby.
Last year was a traumatic one for Zimbabwe. How does Ndlovu manage to concentrate on his football in Sheffield when every week horror stories emerge of farmworkers harassed, opposition activists tortured, democracy flouted and people going hungry? â€œI donâ€™t think thatâ€™s got anything to do with my football,â€ he says. â€œAll I do is I go and play. The situation in ZimÂbabwe is maybe not what we want, but things are happening and itâ€™s not anybodyâ€™s fault.â€ He laughs nerÂvously. His reluctance to talk about the Mugabe regime is understandable, with most of his family still living in Zimbabwe.
Now 29, the former Coventry City and Birmingham City winger from Bulawayo is not an automatic selection for United and has been placed on the transfer list to try to cut the clubâ€™s wage bill. But heâ€™s still a key player for the Zimbabwe national team, who have won their first two games in the qualifying campaign for the African Cup of Nations, against Mali and Eritrea. But in a nation buffeted by political violence and weakened by hunger, there are more important things on peopleâ€™s minds than qualifying for Tunisia in 2004, surely? â€œEvery country has its problems, not only food or whatever it may be. Once youâ€™re on the field people want to come and watch football and thatâ€™s what theyâ€™re worried about. If itâ€™s football time, itâ€™s football time… they donâ€™t mix things.â€
The good start to the Cup of Nations campaign is a cause for optimism in a country used to failing on the football field. Since independence in 1980 ZimÂbabwe have never qualified for the finals of a major tournament, but the senior sideâ€™s back-to-back wins, the emergence of Auxerreâ€™s exciting Benjani MwarÂuwari and victory in December for the Young Warriors in the Southern African Under-20 competition â€“ inÂcluding a hard-fought 2-1 win over South Africa â€“ sugÂgest things may finally be turning around at international level.
The domestic game, though, is in deep crisis, and one family is held responsible: the Mugabes â€“ Robert for crippling the countryâ€™s economy, and his nephew Leo for turning football into an extension of his uncleâ€™s political agenda. Leo, who trained as an electrical engÂineer in the UK, is serving a third term as presÂÂÂident of the Zimbabwe FA, ZIFA.
Many in Zimbabwean football accuse him of conÂstant political meddling. Dynamos, from the capital, Harare, were the biggest club in Zimbabwe a few years ago but are now a pale shadow of their former selves after Leo Mugabe axed the people running the club, who had links with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, and replaced them with government supporters. The results speaks for themselves. In 1998, the club reached the final of the African Champions League, the best a Zimbabwean club has done in the competition. Last season Dynamos finÂished a disappointing fifth in the league and the club is ravaged by internal divisions.
Ndlovuâ€™s old team Highlanders, from Bulawayo, are the current powerhouse, having won four chamÂÂpionships in a row â€“ the last by a margin of 20 points â€“ and attracting crowds of up to 40,000. But they have failed to make any impression on the African Champions League. Their manager Ernest Sibanda says Leo Mugabe and the wider political and economic situation are making life almost impossible.
â€œLeo Mugabe is responsible for the downfall of our football. Heâ€™s getting involved in what teams do, putÂting his own people in place, making political deÂcisions. By intervening at DynÂÂamos he has taken a team that was probably the top club here to the state they are in now â€“ finished.â€
The view is supported by the chairman of Amazulu, another Bulawayo club, who finished third last season. DelÂma Lupepe criticises the president of ZIFA in terms which could equally apply to his uncle Robert.
â€œI believe people should have their innings and after that go. Itâ€™s time to give someone else an opportunity. We need fresh ideas. He cannot divorce his political links from the sport and that has had a damaging effect on the game. The private sector is not happy with the presidentâ€™s policies and you canâ€™t run football without sponsorship.â€
Every team is loss-making in ZimÂbabwe today, he says, even Highlanders with their big crowds. With the economy on a disastrous downward spiral there will come a time when admission prices are out of the reach of most supporters, Lupepe says.
Eddie May, once manager of Cardiff City, Torquay United and Brentford, but now head coach at HighÂlanders, says that while football standards are high, financial, social and political issues make life tough for the club. The lack of foreign exchange, caused by the official exchange rateâ€™s absurd over-valuation of the Zimbabwe dollar, makes buying foÂreign players almost impossible. The exchange problem is having far reaching effects. It was reported in December that ZIFA had to send the national womenâ€™s team to the African Championships finals in two parties. The first group of players left on a Kenyan Airways flight paid for in foreign currency, while the rest of the squad waited for a later Air Zimbabwe flight paid for in local currency.
Itâ€™s unlikely that Zimbabwean club football will flourish without regime change. â€œItâ€™s a beautiful country but in any other place there would have been an uprising by now,â€ May reflects. â€œThe lovely people here go along with it, though.â€
ZIFA denies all the claims of interference, insisting that Leo Mugabe works only part-time for them and thus has little power. The man who has day-to-day control, South African Edgar Rogers, says that it is the Premier Soccer League that deals with the clubs and that ZIFA is merely â€œin the backgroundâ€.
Ernest Sibanda laughs at such a suggestion. â€œRogers has only been in the job six months, so of course he canâ€™t criticise his boss. I know whatâ€™s going on, Iâ€™ve been working in the game long enough. Leo Mugabe has the greatest power and while he clings onto that poÂwer I donâ€™t see football going anyÂwhere.â€
Only Mugabeâ€™s closest circle are now immune from the economic meltdown. â€œItâ€™s a very difficult time for everyone, especially the fans,â€ Sibanda says. â€œThe only thing that belongs to them in Bulawayo is Highlanders and thatâ€™s why they love this club so much.â€
Peter Ndlovu wonâ€™t discuss Leo Mugabe, political violence or the worsening food crisis. His mind is firmly focused on keeping the winning run going against the Seychelles on March 30. With things getÂting more desperate by the day and the UN predicting that half the population will soon be wholly dependent on food aid, it seems ridiculous that the game will hold any interest for the broad mass of Zimbabweans. But then, footballâ€™s escapist appeal is perhaps amÂpÂÂÂlified when the reality is so hard to take.
From WSC 192 February 2003.