‘Gutted’: The effect of Zimbabwe’s football ban on youngsters

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By Al Jazeera


As Zimbabwe remains suspended from international football, the country’s players – from a highly promising rookie who made his national team debut as a schoolboy to established professionals plying their trade in Europe’s top leagues – have spoken of their anguish and frustration.

In November last year, the president of the Zimbabwe Football Association (ZIFA), Felton Kamambo, and his entire executive were removed from office by the Sports and Recreation Commission (SRC), a government body that controls sport in the country, after being accused of corruption, maladministration and sexual harassment. female match officials.

Three months later, Zimbabwe were expelled from the 2024 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) qualifiers after the SRC refused to comply with a FIFA directive to reinstate those officials. It is still unclear when Zimbabwe will play international football again.

For 19-year-old Bill Antonio, currently the brightest young prospect in Zimbabwe’s underfunded domestic league, the disciplinary action has robbed him of the chance to spark overseas interest.

Antonio last week flew on a month-long trial with Belgian club KV Mechelen, hoping his life could improve after a disadvantaged upbringing in one of the capital’s low-income suburbs. Harare.

“The ban has closed opportunities for us young players,” Antonio told Al Jazeera while still in Zimbabwe. “It slowed things down in terms of marketing because international football is where everyone gets noticed.”

Antonio grew up in Dzivarasekwa, a township in Harare where levels of drug addiction and other vices among young people are rising alarmingly as the country struggles with worsening socio-economic problems.

Antonio managed to block it and grew up well disciplined, focusing on his education and his sport.

It won him a football scholarship to the Prince Edward School in Harare, a conveyor belt of sporting talent whose alumni list includes former world number one golfer Nick Price, cricket coach Duncan Fletcher as well as a Springboks record rugby player Tonderai Chavhanga.

Last November Antonio, still in school, made headlines when he was selected for the national team for a World Cup qualifier in South Africa.

He played the last 13 minutes, prompting foreign clubs to take notice but some needed to see him play more at international level before they were convinced.

Antonio, already a breadwinner, desperately needed more time on the pitch, but the country’s suspension dealt him a severe blow.

“It’s a missed opportunity indeed because the more opportunities there are to play international football, the higher your profile becomes.”

For 22-year-old defender Jordan Zemura, the suspension has inflicted a different kind of pain.

It has always been a sort of loving connection to the homeland of his Zimbabwean immigrant parents for London-born Zemura to play for Zimbabwe.

The traveling winger, who played an important role in Bournemouth’s promotion to the English Premier League, has been capped six times by Zimbabwe, including in this year’s AFCON.

Due to COVID-related disruptions, Zemura arrived in Cameroon late for the tournament and only played one full game for the Warriors. But he impressed onlookers enough to be dubbed future captain.

“I’m disgusted that we don’t have the chance to qualify [for AFCON]”, Zemura told Al Jazeera.

“I hope things can be resolved because playing for my country is everything to me. Missing these tournaments and opportunities hurts.

SRC chief Gerald Mlotshwa told Al Jazeera they were “expecting the ban” from FIFA.

“The conditions that had been put forward by FIFA to avoid a ban were not in line with what we were looking for at the SRC,” said Mlotshwa, insisting that the time spent away from international football will instill a new life to Zimbabwean football.

“In a sense, the suspension – not a ban – allowed everyone to focus on the reform process without being distracted by the [AFCON] qualified,” Mlotshwa said.

With FIFA funding frozen and the national team not playing, this could harm the growth and interest in the game in the country.

Still, Mlotshwa maintains that everything is under control.

“There was obvious disappointment from some quarters, especially football fans who just want to see the Warriors play. But I think they too will understand that the suspension is for the long term benefit of the game in Zimbabwe.

Sacked ZIFA officials declined to comment on the case, telling Al Jazeera they were not allowed to discuss the matter in public as they are under investigation.

A dark future

Meanwhile, another big star from Zimbabwe to reveal his “great disappointment” is Marshall Munetsi, a midfielder for French side Reims, who was linked with a move to English side Brighton and Hove Albion.

The 26-year-old missed this year’s AFCON through injury and was eager to bounce back as he helped Zimbabwe secure a place at the 2023 edition.

“Missing AFCON is a huge disappointment for the players and the fans,” Munetsi told Al Jazeera.

“I missed the last tournament due to injury and not being able to represent my country anymore is even more disappointing.”

With football in the country in limbo and no solution in sight, Munetsi fears the future is bleak.

“The future of our football is clouded with uncertainty as we have no idea what is going on. Everyone is worried about how the situation has been handled. The current generation, and those to come , will lose great opportunities to pursue their dreams and change their lives through football.

The apparent discouragement caused by Zimbabwe’s ban was also felt by another newcomer to the team – 24-year-old midfielder Nyasha Dube, who arrived in the United States in 2017 on a football scholarship.

After completing his studies at two universities, Dube played for two senior clubs in the semi-professional structures of the game in the United States.

In 2021, he signed for the Arkansas Wolves, and was later selected by Zimbabwe for an annual regional tournament in South Africa, making one appearance.

Delighted by the call, he hoped for more international opportunities to boost his chances of moving to a bigger league.

“It’s really disappointing to see us as a country that doesn’t play,” Dube, from the small mining town of Hwange in northwestern Zimbabwe, told Al Jazeera.

“For us young players, playing international football increases our chances of being recognized in other markets, such as Europe and America. Not playing international football affects us because at the moment nobody is called and no one gets those picks. No one notices us.

“It’s a setback. It’s everyone’s dream to represent their country on a big stage like the AFCON. I think the people running the organization (Zimbabwean FA) have to do what FIFA says.

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