Bernard Gwarada, Special Correspondent
Finally after a long wait of 519 days, Zimbabwe football is back after FIFA lifted its suspension on 10 July 2023. Following the suspension of the Felton Kamambo led board, the apex body strongly expressed disgruntlement and threated to suspend Zimbabwe if there was no reinstatement.
This threat turned into reality when, on 22 February 2022, FIFA suspended Zimbabwe. The suspension of Zimbabwe by FIFA thus naturally created dejection, despondence and uncertainty within the Zimbabwean football fraternity. This is because football provides entertainment to many people in Zimbabwe and is a source of pride and publicity for the country.
This article reviews events leading to the ban, its impact and the future prospects for Zimbabwe football. It also critically looks at how the lifting of the ban will assist in providing solutions to the contemporary strategic issues of football as a sustainable source of income for both the country and the players in an evolving and highly competitive world of football.
In any country around the world, the government has a responsibility for the formulation of both sports laws and policies, allocation of funding and sports infrastructure development. The decision by Sports and Recreation Commission (SRC) to suspend the ZIFA board was, to all intents and purposes, a declaration that Zimbabwe football needed to be revitalised, as the state of affairs, especially governance issues had failed to inspire confidence in fans and stakeholders.
Because football touches our communities in so many ways, SRC saw it fit to exercise its role by taking remedial measures in order to bring sanity to football.
It is not in doubt, that the ban was a major blow to Zimbabwe and it attracted a great deal of media attention and public discontent. There was palpable tension among football stakeholders, and divided opinions as there was a section which believed there was a better way of resolving the impasse between SRC and ZIFA.
Along the way the SRC chairman Gerald Mlotshwa remained bold as he believed the SRC decision was not in favour of any of the parties, but was merely a basis for setting right what SRC believed was wrong with football in Zimbabwe.
Research suggests that every leader has to make tough decisions that may have consequences for their organizations, reputation and above all their careers. He wanted to see reforms in football and also to see off all, “…unscrupulous administrators and societal miscreants…” who were, “…driven by self-centeredness and egotism”.
However, he understood the impact of that decision of allowing the ban. He was not swayed by the court of public opinion and naturally he became very unpopular.
However, he understood the impact of the decision and on behalf of SRC he stated that, “We are acutely cognisant of the inconvenience, pain and frustration that the suspension from international football has elicited…”.
The sports minister Kirsty Coventry also echoed, “We had to make hard decisions to make sure we were making the correct decisions for all stakeholders”.
However, the stalemate was resolved when FIFA played ball and reached common ground with the government resulting in the lifting of the ban.
It would appear that the lifting of the ban by FIFA without the other party having bowed to the original demands is unique and unprecedented. The writer contains that football leadership is in need of enhanced dialog skills in order for it to maximise benefits in its relationships with stakeholders such as the government, CAF and FIFA.
THE ECONOMIC COSTS OF FIFA BAN
The ban by FIFA resulted in the country incurring a number of economic costs. For instance, it meant that a generation of talent was lost during the one and half year period of the ban. All Zimbabwean football teams (including clubs) across all age groups were unable participate in any tournament at the international level.
One overseas based senior player was quoted thus, “Missing AFCON is a very big disappointment to the players and fans”. ZIFA failed to benefit from FIFA funding during the period of ban and also missed on FIFA and CAF development programmes. Local coaches had to resort to domestic training programmes whiles others tried to apply for coaching programmes in neighbouring countries and in most cases were turned down.
As a country, Zimbabwe could not apply to host FIFA or CAF events or tournaments which brings in millions of dollars in revenue and creates jobs for the locals. ZIFA secretariat was in a dilemma as it failed to get its salaries. The fans were also unable to see their national team compete in CAF and FIFA games. On a positive note, kudos to the Premier Soccer League and its sponsors, as well as lower leagues keeping fans entertained during the ban.
Research demonstrates that in sports around the world, public opinion can play a positive role in policy making and shaping the destiny of the beautiful game. The proffering of opinions within the football fraternity and among the fans is an important aspect of the democratic process in football. The FIFA ban for example resulted in divergent views.
With regards to the ban, the following are some of the views the writer encountered.
Some suggested that SRC should not be blamed for the ban as it was merely trying to bring order to a chaotic situation. According to this view it was the former president of ZIFA who had to shoulder the blame. SRC was working within its mandate as a regulator.
On the other hand, some believed that SRC was out of order in its suspension of the Kamambo led board as this resulted in a regrettable situation where ZIFA lost the goodwill of FIFA and, the country had to face the attendant negative consequences as already outlined above. Some even suggested that charges against the Kamambo led board are trumped up.
It should be noted that contradictory views of stakeholders are not the end of the world. If carefully handled by a visionary and committed leadership they can be a basis of spurring the game of football forward in a positive way. However, now that this chapter is closed, parties need to close ranks and move forward for mutual benefit.
In the writer’s view and in light of the recent developments, there is light at the end of the tunnel, although some may still think the future of our football is uncertain. What is key now, is unity of purpose which is a prerequisite for the success of any organisation. Football requires a stable and harmonious environment in order for the game to develop in manner that provides optimum dividends to stakeholders. There is no point in having rules of the game which a part can chose to violate, in other ways rules of the game ought to abided by.
After the lifting of ban, FIFA appointed a normalisation committee (NC). This committee is headed by Lincoln Mutasa following recommendations by relevant stakeholders. Its mandate is to hold transparent and fair elections as well as helping to restore trust amongst all football stakeholders in Zimbabwe.
The appointment of Lincoln Mutasa as chairman appears to have received unanimous endorsement given his experience and exposure in both sports and business. However, when in place studies show that all may not always be rosy for a new leadership.
In this regard it should be expected that the NC may encounter some obstacles and may even fall short in some cases, however a visionary leadership always has the necessary wheel and resolve to overcome any huddles in its way. It is also important for the NC to accept both compliments, as well as criticisms. The impetus for positive development is often driven by a leadership which is receptive to criticism.
It is however comforting to note that some all the members of NC have a leadership background and therefore one expects that, they should know that leadership is not about being the best but about making everyone else better.
This is particularly important given that football has a multiplicity of stakeholders. Stakeholder theory give due recognition to different interests of stakeholders in decision making. At this critical juncture, the NC must exploit the multiplicity of stakeholders and the potentially divergent views to advance the cause of football in this country in a positive way.
It must be noted that there is abundant football knowledge, talent and intellectual capacity within the stakeholders (including the fans/supporters) which is crying to be heard. This can be ignored but at the expense of the development of football in this country.
However, recent media reports state that there is already a stakeholder discontent regarding the operations of NC as a result of outside interference which potentially affect its operations. It is important that the NC is given more time and the stakeholders (supporters included) should be patient with them as research shows that patience is a virtue in a situation of uncertainty. There are some people who belong to a school of thought suggesting that since NC was appointed by FIFA, its failure is also FIFA’s failure.
The NC’s strategic plan of action can be enriched by taking some of these viewpoints into account. The NC should not allow itself to be a prisoner of past managerial and leadership practices. It should be bold enough to strike a match and start anew. For example, the Nigeria Football Federation did something possibly unprecedented by allowing the fans to decide the future of its senior men national team coach by public poll.
In closing, we look forward to seeing relations between ZIFA and SRC being continually improved, as well as that with international football governing bodies such as COSAFA, CAF and FIFA for mutual benefit. It is everyone’s hope that the NC is a good starting point for taking Zimbabwe football to the promised land.
*Bernard Gwarada is a Business Consultant and a Doctoral Research candidate focusing on Entrepreneurial Innovation at Binary University. He is an alumnus of University of Pretoria and University of Leicester. He is a co-owner of former Premier League Club Douglas Warriors FC and a former ZIFA Board member. He writes in his own capacity. For feedback: +263712430591 or email: email@example.com