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Aug 22, 2011

Zimbabwe looking to put house in order

Very few vestiges of grandeur remain in Zimbabwe. While the gabled colonial homes still exist, there's a certain ruggedness to them now. It could be as insignificant as a tiny corner of peeling paint, but it's there as a reminder that once, not so long ago, some kind of degradation affected almost everything in the country. In the case of No. 53 Livingstone Avenue, the rot has set in more resolutely.

The Zimbabwe Football Association (ZIFA) head office is a poky cottage on one of Harare's most renowned streets, which also houses the Swedish Embassy, USAID and the country's Cancer Association. Once, it may have been quite a homely place, but now, with its front gate painted a violent shade of blue, a small steel table and chair leaning precariously in what could be a blooming garden and a white-turned-grey curtain barely hanging from the window, it's a lonely abode.

Inside, a solitary desk and chair take up most of the room, a smattering of African drums and traditional weapons lying on grass mats are the only forms of décor besides the mandatory framed photograph of president Robert Mugabe. The day before Zimbabwe were due to play Zambia in an international friendly, their first game of the year, there were two people in the office. Two people and a crisis.

"I don't know why they have gone to the ground without making arrangements," the frustrated secretary told the person on the other end of a telephone line. Before hanging up and venting: "Zambia have gone to practice at this ground even though it was not scheduled and now we are trying to send them to Motor Action ground instead but there is no-one there and Zimbabwe are training later.''

But, communication is one of the lesser problems facing ZIFA, as their modest headquarters, and their overworked secretary, testified to. Money is their insurmountable obstacle. "It is very difficult to play in Zimbabwe," Tapuwa Kapini, national goalkeeper who plays at South African Premier Soccer League club AmaZulu told ESPNsoccernet. "It's one thing to have talent but unless that talent can be secured and there is enough money being paid to players can look after their families, things are going to be difficult there."

With no funding from governments, football in the country relies on FIFA grants, donations and, increasingly, on wealthy individuals who have an interest in the game. Cuthbert Dube, president of ZIFA, is one such bankroller. Dube is also the group chief executive of the premier service medical aid society and has funded numerous national team trips. "He loves football, his heart is in football," Kapini said. "But he can't do it alone."

Indeed, he can't do it across every level and even though he has managed to keep money streaming into the highest tier, it's the activities below that are in danger. This year, one of the country's most popular and, traditionally, wealthier clubs, Dynamos, were unable to pay salaries to its players. The other Zimbabwean giant, Bulawayo-based Highlanders, were bailed out by a US $22,000 donation from the Mines Minister. Monomatopa, 2008 league winners, were in negotiations to sell their franchise, as were Little Kiglon, after both teams were in danger of having top businessmen pull out.

Joel Sengereto, a paper merchant, who owns Shooting Stars has been on the verge of doing the same on numerous occasions. "The only thing that has happened to me since I bought the club is that I have lost a lot of property," he said "It has affected my family very much but I enjoy the game so I keep putting my money into it." The Premiership is poverty stricken and only big, corporate sponsorship can change that.

"We have a sponsor for prize money in the league, but that is not enough because it means that we have to play a whole season without any funds coming in. We only get the money at the end, by which time some clubs may not have been able to fulfil their league commitments, because they would have run out of money," Sengereto explained. And, without money, Zimbabwean top-flight football finds itself trapped in a tumble dryer that is spinning out of control, because players leave, resulting in less interest from potential sponsors and so, even less money.

The only positive is that some of the income gained from selling top players can be ploughed into keeping the stars of the future, but even that is not ideal: "Yes, we use that money to boost our income, but sometimes we are accepting offers that are too small," Sengereto said. He referred specifically to his selling of teenage sensation Simba Sithole, who scored 10 goals in 11 games last season, to South African glamour club Mamelodi Sundowns. "We could have got a lot more for him but how could do you negotiate, when you are in a position where you can't even pay."

A deficiency of being able to provide the basics, like a liveable salary, are chasing more and more players out of Zimbabwe to other African countries. But, it is not necessarily sending them to their first-choice clubs, places they would go if properly managed and sold out of choice, not desperation. Kapini, who spent six years playing at Highlanders, moved to Platinum Stars in South Africa in 2006. He was on the verge of signing for Coventry City when the deal fell through and he took up an offer in South Africa.

"The problem is that we don't have agents who come to look for players in Zimbabwe and take them to Europe, if we did have that, I'm sure 60% of our national team would be playing in Europe," Kapini said. Last month, striker Knowledge Musona, who made his name at Kaizer Chiefs signed for German club Hoffenheim, but the bulk of Zimbabwe's top players are still grafting it out in South Africa or languishing at home. Those who stay in Zimbabwe remain little known, because the national broadcaster does not screen any Premiership matches, choosing to air competitions like the Champions League instead, depriving the league not just of exposure but of a possible revenue stream in television rights.

The national team do get themselves on the silver screen, when they play, events that are getting fewer and fewer. (Zimbabwe only managed to schedule one friendly this year.) Their lack of playing time is one of the key reasons they slumped to 131 on the rankings in October 2009 but they have slowly climbed their way up to 86.

They do manage to fulfil their continental commitments and have played in all their 2012 African Nations' Cup qualifiers so far, and lie third in their group, with two games to play. They have a tough World Cup qualification group, which includes Egypt but Kapini says that despite their financial situation, the morale in the team is high after their shock 2-0 win over Zambia last week.

"We have belief that we can compete,'' he said. ''Every other team also has players with two legs and two eyes, so there's no reason we can't beat them. It is our dream to play in the World Cup and we know are now a unit that is going somewhere."

Despite the "Dream Team" of the early 90s - who were ranked in the top 40 in the world - the image of football has slumped, especially as it is still slinking through the shadows of the Asiagate scandal, which resulted in FIFA intervention last month. A year after the incident was made public, ZIFA have finally decided to appoint a disciplinary committee to investigate the tours of the Far East. It's all part of Dube's elaborate, albeit delayed, house-cleaning exercise.

And, even the office at 53 Livingstone will not escape the broom it seems. Dube called the headquarters "haunted and cursed" and said that ZIFA will be looking to relocate to building that encompasses the spirit of football a little better.

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