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 game’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? “I don’t think that’s got anything to do with my football,” he says. “All I do is I go and play. The situation in Zim­babwe is maybe not what we want, but things are happening and it’s not anybody’s fault.” He laughs ner­vously. 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 club’s wage bill. But he’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 people’s minds than qualifying for Tunisia in 2004, surely? “Every country has its problems, not only food or whatever it may be. Once you’re on the field people want to come and watch football and that’s what they’re worried about. If it’s football time, it’s football time… they don’t mix things.”

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 Zim­babwe have never qualified for the finals of a major tournament, but the senior side’s back-to-back wins, the emergence of Auxerre’s exciting Benjani Mwar­uwari and victory in December for the Young Warriors in the Southern African Under-20 competition – in­cluding a hard-fought 2-1 win over South Africa – sug­gest 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 – Robert for crippling the country’s economy, and his nephew Leo for turning football into an extension of his uncle’s political agenda. Leo, who trained as an electrical eng­ineer in the UK, is serving a third term as pres­­­ident of the Zimbabwe FA, ZIFA.

Many in Zimbabwean football accuse him of con­stant 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 fin­ished a disappointing fifth in the league and the club is ravaged by internal divisions.

Ndlovu’s old team Highlanders, from Bulawayo, are the current powerhouse, having won four cham­­pionships in a row – the last by a margin of 20 points – 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.

“Leo Mugabe is responsible for the downfall of our football. He’s getting involved in what teams do, put­ting his own people in place, making political de­cisions. By intervening at Dyn­­amos he has taken a team that was probably the top club here to the state they are in now – finished.”

The view is supported by the chairman of Amazulu, another Bulawayo club, who finished third last season. Del­ma Lupepe criticises the president of ZIFA in terms which could equally apply to his uncle Robert.

“I believe people should have their innings and after that go. It’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 president’s policies and you can’t run football without sponsorship.”

Every team is loss-making in Zim­babwe 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 High­landers, 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 rate’s absurd over-valuation of the Zimbabwe dollar, makes buying fo­reign players almost impossible. The exchange problem is having far reaching effects. It was reported in December that ZIFA had to send the national women’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.

It’s unlikely that Zimbabwean club football will flourish without regime change. “It’s a beautiful country but in any other place there would have been an uprising by now,” May reflects. “The lovely people here go along with it, though.”

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 “in the background”.

Ernest Sibanda laughs at such a suggestion. “Rogers has only been in the job six months, so of course he can’t criticise his boss. I know what’s going on, I’ve been working in the game long enough. Leo Mugabe has the greatest power and while he clings onto that po­wer I don’t see football going any­where.”

Only Mugabe’s closest circle are now immune from the economic meltdown. “It’s a very difficult time for everyone, especially the fans,” Sibanda says. “The only thing that belongs to them in Bulawayo is Highlanders and that’s why they love this club so much.”

Peter Ndlovu won’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 get­ting 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, football’s escapist appeal is perhaps am­p­­­lified when the reality is so hard to take.

From WSC 192 February 2003.

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