THE RETURN OF THE ZIMBABWE PSL – ARE WE READY (Part 1 – Stadia)

“Tokupai here madomasi mukuwasha (Would you like to buy some tomatoes, Sir)?” a woman bellows in my direction as I alight from my vehicle. Whilst I’m still bemused at the shocking sight in front of me, another one screams at me to buy her cucumbers whilst a young infant grabs me by the arm and starts dragging me towards a cart loaded with pineapples for sale. Stunned, I look at the deplorable structure in front of me and the world seems to freeze amidst muffled screams of various men, women, and children selling their wares outside the country’s second-largest Stadium. Ladies and Gentleman, this is the horror story just outside the ceremonial home of football, Rufaro Stadium.

A bulging net and a player wheeling off in celebrations towards the ‘Vietnam End’ where the multitudes of Dembare fans electrify the atmosphere with roars of celebration as the goalscorer is joined by his teammates in doing the Zora Butter dance that has become the Dembare trademark! Oh yes – Dembare is the nickname for Dynamos Football Club, Zimbabwe’s biggest and most successful club that calls Rufaro Stadium its home and has slain many a domestic and continental giant in its fortress. Located in the bustling township of Mbare in the capital, the Stadium is owned by the City of Harare and predominantly used by Harare giants Dynamos. Rufaro Stadium is shared by many other top-flight teams including the council-owned Harare City, army sides Black Rhinos and Cranborne Bullets, Herentals, and Yadah FC whilst their bitter rivals Caps Utd, who have adopted the National Sports Stadium as their main home ground, occasionally use Rufaro Stadium too as do national teams across gender and all age groups. Games on this stadium are epic and the Harare derby pitting the City’s giants often color the stadium green and blue and makes Harare come to a virtual standstill as the teams battle to secure victory and bragging rights whose decibels ring loud across Africa and the World!

Sadly that stadium has not seen action for over a year. What used to be a weekly setting off a sea of Blue and White coloring the stadium as Dynamos trooped onto the pitch ready for battle now seems a distant memory. Queues of Dembare fans of all ages and race and gender from all walks of life dressed in Blue and White regalia from head to toe have now been replaced by vendors trying to eke out a living by selling an assortment of wares from fruit and vegetables to second-hand clothing bales as well as electrical and mobile phone accessories amongst several other items for sale. Conversations and debates about the potential starting line ups and tactics by the coaches have now been replaced by discordant screams of different voices calling out to potential customers to come to their stalls. The stadium environs have become mud pools that one can easily mistake for a swamp or drown in quicksand if one does not watch his / her step, and one is greeted by the stench of raw sewage and the pungent smell of rotten garbage dumped all over. One must, indeed, watch their step in the literal sense!

With football having been suspended because of the Covid19 pandemic, a season that was supposed to kick off in March 2019 failed to kick-off and no domestic football has been played since FC Platinum beat Highlanders in a Charity Shield match in February last year. A return under a “bubble concept” was mooted in October last year suffered a stillbirth so Zimbabwean football fans, for so long starved of top-flight action, continue to suffer the effects of lack of football. Judging by the state of our stadia, that drought seems there to stay!

Rufaro Stadium, in its deplorable condition, is Zimbabwe’s second-largest stadium yet was deemed by CAF as unfit to host international matches. The state of our stadia is certainly a cause for concern as most, if any, are in a deplorable state to host football matches. Early last year when the 2020 Zim PSL was set to kick off in a match, the First Instance Board (formerly known as the Grounds Committee) had only certified seven stadia across the country as fit enough to host top-flight football matches. The National Sports Stadium in Harare, Barbourfields and Luveve in Bulawayo, Mandava Stadium in Zvishavane, Baobab Stadium in Mhondoro-Ngezi, Vhengere Stadium in Rusape, and Gibbo Stadium in Chiredzi were the only stadiums deemed fit and set to be shared by 18 top-flight teams across the country. An intriguing factor was that 7 teams from the Capital City Harare are expected to share 1 stadium for their home matches as per the FIB report of last year. Given the conditions at Rufaro, one wonders what condition other stadia across Zimbabwe are in and if in fact we still have 7 venues ready to host top-flight domestic football in Zimbabwe or if that number has greatly diminished!

The return of football in Zimbabwe is long overdue and the football constituency, starved of their favorite pastime, awaits with bated breath for the mother body ZIFA and the PSL management as well as the Government to come up with a feasible roadmap, in light of the dangers still posed by the Covid 19 pandemic, for the world’s most beautiful game to return. The City of Harare, as the owners of Rufaro Stadium, have let football down by leaving Rufaro Stadium to waste away into such a shameful state and must be held to account. If the costs of maintaining the home of football are too steep, why not partner clubs or engage the private sector by leasing or selling naming rights so that whatever finance comes their way is used to give the stadium a face light? Efforts to get the venue renamed hit a brick wall in 2014 when the Harare City Council reportedly refused to sell the naming rights to Savana Tobacco who wanted it renamed and rebranded Pacific Stadium in a deal that would cost US$10 million over a 5-year spell – could it be time to revisit such lucrative deals and get meaningful revenue? The same deals could be structured for the Council’s other stadiums that are in a horrible state like Gwanzura Stadium in Highfields, once home to Black Aces, and Dzivarasekwa Stadium last used by Lengthens about 15 years ago. These white elephants can help ease the stadium crisis in the capital and clubs can take advantage by actively working with the council in securing certain rights in exchange for maintenance of the grounds which, for top-flight clubs, should not be as complex as some may believe. Division One Side Golden Eagles use Ellis Robins School for their home matches and that ground is in immaculate condition, beautifully manicured and a refreshing breath of fresh air and certainly something the more established clubs in the PSL can learn from. Yadah FC, owned by controversial prophet Walter Magaya, also has superb training facilities and a lovely small stadium which can be spruced up to be a very good home ground for his team.

There are other stadia dotted within the environs of the Central Business District such as Danny Bismarck Stadium in Arcadia, once home to fallen giants Arcadia United, and Motor Action Sports Club that was once home to flamboyant yet now-defunct former champions Motor Action, which can be revived by clubs in the capital. Army sides Black Rhinos and Cranborne Bullets would also do well to make One Commando Stadium host Premier League matches especially since that ground hosts Division One Games. Stadium maintenance is key and infrastructure development should be the chorus we should sing if we are to be a serious football nation. Stadiums should be a sight of joy for the football fan and a source of pride and value-addition for the communities they are located in. The appalling state of the country’s second-largest stadium Rufaro should serve as an eye-opener for the powers-that-be to work closely with local authorities and the government and find lasting solutions to this crisis. I would like to believe that the sad situation with Stadia is not just peculiar to the capital alone but right across the country.

In conclusion, the Premier Soccer League and the football mother body ZIFA has a lot of work to do in collaborating with stakeholders and ensuring that our stadia are ready to host professional top-flight domestic games. As fans, we want our football back under all Covid19 Safety Protocols and want it played under the right conditions for our game to grow. The horrible showing by our senior national team at CHAN was mostly blamed on lack of domestic football for a year with players picked more on reputation alone than on-field ability, form, and fitness and that humiliation should be an eye-opener. The first port of call is the state of our stadia which needs to be urgently looked into.

Article by @MMutemasango