Love of European football leaves crumbs for locals
Danai Chitakasha Special Correspondent
LIVERPOOL lost the Champions League final to Champions League football heavyweights Real Madrid in Paris on May 28, 2022.
The pain was felt among the Liverpool City Scousers. And the pain has also been felt in cities like Harare, Bulawayo and many others in the diaspora that Zimbabweans now call home.
Many also celebrated the loss because in their own words “Liverpool fans vanotaurisa (Liverpool fans talk too much)!” If the team had won, they said, it was going to be hard to live with the endless jubilation, especially on the various Facebook groups where Zimbabwean football fans congregate!
I have to admit, however, there were a lot of tears for Liverpool. I know a lot of die-hard Liverpool supporters. Zimbabwe football legends such as Cephas Chimedza, George Mwando, Frank ”Dealer” Nyamukuta and scribe Albert Marufu all have red hearts. I watched the game with my brother Godwin Chin’onzo. I was ready for Liverpool to win because I knew my brother’s happiness was at stake.
He loves the team and has been with them since the early 80s. In the end, we were all heartbroken. Real Madrid did what they know how to do best, winning the Champions League, making their title number 14. The trophy is their totem.
How did we become attached and addicted to foreign teams, especially in the English Premier League? Yes, our attention is often captured by other leagues as well as clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain; and AC Milan in Italy. These clubs have many fans among Zimbabweans.
First let me explain the Liverpool fandom. I think a big factor was the presence of Bruce Grobbelaar as the club’s undisputed number one from 1981 to 1994. With the advent of independence, the world of international football opened up to Zimbabwean football fans .
Having one of their own at a huge club like Liverpool has brought in a lot of fans for the club. Another player who had that impact was John Barnes. Seeing one of the few black players dazzle opponents with his repertoire of skills has won the hearts of many Zimbabweans.
John Barnes was great and was among the pioneering black players who defied the odds and the scourge of racism that was rampant in English football then. A photo of him in those tight shorts heeling a banana peel tossed onto the pitch by a racist fan captured the challenges these black players have faced.
Liverpool also had Ian Rush and Kenny Dalgish. I remember Rahman Gumbo was nicknamed “Rush” which shows how popular Rush was in Zimbabwe. It was the knowledge of these players that made many Zimbabweans follow Liverpool.
Incidentally, even a less popular player like Craig Johnson was a hero to some. A friend, Charle Makuwerere, named his son Craig after the Australian Liverpool winger.
Generally speaking, the fact that Zimbabwe was a colony of Britain meant that many Zimbabweans were familiar with most British clubs. Football was brought to this country by white missionaries and, according to research, was used as a tool of social control. According to various scholars, football was used to promote discipline, good behavior, sobriety, and cooperation among black people. The African Welfare Society was used by white leaders to promote football.
Cultural links with Britain have introduced many Africans to many British teams. After independence, a number of programs were used to promote the English league in Zimbabwe.
As young boys in the 80s we got glimpses of the English league (it was mostly English, never Scottish) through programs such as The Road to Wembley. I think it traced the journey of many teams in the FA Cup. Televisions were not readily available in those days, but those who owned them were willing to share them. It was common for all the hood kids to gather in the dining room of a wealthy family who owned the magic screen to watch the highlights.
Programs such as Big League Football, Gillette World Sports Special, Transworld Sport and The English League Football Highlights have all helped extend our knowledge of football beyond the borders of Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation showed us all these programs. Like a drug, the English game slowly took over our faculties and soon we were hooked.
In the 80s and 90s there were many football stars in our local league. I started supporting CAPS United in 1981 and like many other fans I was spoiled by the quality of the team. To find out, I still remember the various training sessions I attended at the Zimbabwe Grounds in Highfield and the big games they played at Gwanzura Stadium.
I rarely missed a game and often had to escape the strict clutches of my father who wanted the whole family to be in church on Sundays. I always found a way to be at Gwanzura Stadium to watch the boys in green, ”Shaisa Rufaro”.
This was the experience of many young men and adults as well. We were aware of the English League but it hadn’t fully caught our attention. However, slowly but surely the addiction took over and to date it has reached unprecedented levels.
Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham are the most popular English clubs in Zimbabwe.
Moneybags Manchester City has also come to the fore and now has a huge following in Zimbabwe.
Manchester City fans are often rudely referred to as plastic fans, especially older ones. People ask, “Which team were you supporting before Man City were so successful?” This is a cruel question to ask.
The truth, however, is that we are all plastic fans, renting from these various clubs. There are various reasons that made us follow the clubs but to be honest it’s not really our clubs. Our clubs are Dynamos, CAPS United, Highlanders, FC Platinum, Banket United, Trojan Mine and Chegutu Pirates, among others.
My decision to include clubs like Banket United and Trojan Mine, among others, is deliberate and also a challenge. Where I currently live, here in Cambridge, England, I know two fans. One is a Cambridge United supporter, his faith in the team is complete despite the fact that they play in the English League 2.
He said to me: “I only support Cambridge United, I don’t care about Manchester United, City or Arsenal. Cambridge United is my team because I was born and raised in Cambridge!
The other fan is from Luton Town but currently works at Cambridge. Every time I see him at the weekend he’ll be wearing a Luton Town shirt. “It’s the best club in the world, I won’t support any other!” he declares.
I think that approach to supporting football is replicated in most towns in England, they support their local clubs even if they are not the most successful. They are real fans; they are not looking for success. This should be the case between us but can we do it?
However, football is a universal sport that crosses borders and Zimbabweans should not be castigated for expanding their footballing horizons. The presence of many African stars has also contributed to the growth of the English Premier League in Africa and Zimbabwe.
The likes of Jay Jay Okocha, Nwankwo Kanu, Didier Drobga, our very own Benjani and Peter Ndlovu played a part. So let’s enjoy the league!
What I warn against is the utter neglect of our football in the pursuit of the glory brought by English Premier League clubs. We can celebrate with Manchester City when they win the league but let’s not forget the Dynamos, for example. We can admire the magnificent stadiums like the Emirates Stadium and the Etihad Stadium in England but let’s not forget Rufaro, Gwanzura, Barbourfields and Sakubva, among others.
This is the biggest challenge, the English Premier League and other leagues like the Spanish La Liga should not be an escape from our harsh reality. Let us work very hard to improve our football clubs, structures and infrastructure so that we can also be proud of our football.
Indeed, our love for the English Premier League continues to grow and to be fair, the English Premier League continues to attract the best players. Norwegian striker, Erling Haaland, recently moved to Manchester City. Any football fan will look forward to the new season with this new addition. So we can’t fight the league, we just have to learn and hopefully be able to replicate that in our country.
In conclusion, I must admit that although CAPS United is my first love, I follow Arsenal very closely. How did it happen? Well, I was drawn to the goalscoring talent of Ian Wright, the silky skills of Dennis Bergkamp and the midfield dominance of Patrick Vieira. Then Nwankwo Kanu arrived, for me Kanu was the icing on the cake!
Indeed, many Zimbabweans have an English Premier League club they call their team. I know veteran football commentator Charles ”CNN” Mabika supports Middlesborough. Why Middlesborough, one might ask? It’s a question the affable legend has never answered. If I have to hazard a guess, I think it’s because of Juninho, the little Brazilian magician who lit up the Riverside Stadium in the late 90s!
The only fan I interact with who doesn’t have a foreign team is Tuzinde Mpofu. For him, it’s Dynamos and Dynamos only. My respect to the man!
From the Zambezi to the Limpopo, from London to all the cities where the citizens of Zimbabwe live, the English Premier League unites us! Football comes from the heart so I’m going to be generous and say, support ‘your teams’ but don’t forget, ‘charity starts at home!’ Let’s grow our league, improve our teams and then slowly our love will grow again!
What should be done ? This is a big question and I hope one day we will find answers!