Friday, 25 November 2011

The best league in Africa … not by a mile

THE media in Zimbabwe, when the occasion arises never lets go of the opportunity to hail the Premier Soccer League as one of the best leagues in Africa.
It’s merits are compared to that of African top leagues, the Egyptian, the South African, the Ghanaian, the Tunisian, the list goes on and on, with the conclusion that in terms of excitement, passion and competitiveness, Zimbabwe’s top division rules.
That bravado stems from the four slots that Zimbabwe was allocated in Africa’s prime club competitions, the Champions’ League and the Confederations Cup. Such a privilege is a preserve of country clubs that do exceptionally well in Africa but it hides a blemish that few acknowledge.
That those four slots that put Zimbabwe club football on a higher plane than our proud neighbours, South Africa, are not a reflect of the standard of football in general, but of one club, Dynamos. If it was not for Dynamos’ impressive record in Africa, Zimbabwe club football would not be chinned up.
The other plus that is mentioned is that Zimbabwe, compared to other Africa countries, has the most football imports, players and coaches, plying their trade in the richest league in Africa, the South Africa league. That is true and that’s a fact but if we desire to be a powerhouse, we should never brag that our best players are just good enough to play in South Africa not Europe.
Still in South Africa, the media is never slow to reaction to virtuoso performances by Zimbabweans. Whenever Nyasha Mushekwi, Khama Billiat, score for their clubs, Mamelodi Sundowns and Ajax Cape Town, back pages of local newspapers make you think for a second that Zimbabwe is in South Africa.
Championship diversity is also ruthlessly exploited to give the league an aura of excitement. In their view a league where big teams can go for three years without the championship with middle tier clubs ruling the roost is not deficient when its comes to fireworks.
Recently they found another pointer to make noise about the goodness of the league. The move by Supersport to flight the league match between Motor Action and Dynamos and today’s Mbada Diamonds Cup final featuring the same clubs, has been seen as an acknowledgement by the TV sport giant that Zimbabwe football is lekker. 
As a patriot one is almost forced to go with the crowd and boldly state that our league is among the best, but as much as I believe that our league is underrated, the reality is that the PSL does not yet come close to being included in the list of the best.
For starters it is among the least sponsored leagues in Africa. Castle Lager was hailed for pouring a $US2 million sponsorship which will run for three years. But a closer look reveals that the amount is peanuts – Dynamos, the new champions were given US$70 000 for huffing and puffing. In total Delta Beverages spent US$600 000 this season.
The winners of the Mbada Diamonds Cup will take home US$75 000, while cup competition winners in South Africa get monies ranging between 6 and 10 million Rands.
Still want more? The average basic salary for players in South Africa’s top flight is R20 000 a month while in Zimbabwe its US500 (R4000).  The average new contract value for a PSL player is R500000 a year, including signing-on fees and bonuses. This translates to R40000 per month. In Zimbabwe signing on fees are around US$3000 (R24 000).
No wonder many South African players prefer to stay home than to move to inferior European leagues such as those of Switzerland, Austria and Scandinavian countries. A Zimbabwean player would thank his gods and sacrifice a bull if a club from those leagues knocks on his door.
Still not satisfied? In Zimbabwe academy graduates or juniors pocket as little as US$100 (R800) a month. In Mzansi, academy graduates are bread winners as they earn R7000 to R8000 a month, which according to the South African Football Players’ Union is far from enough.
The other fact that makes a mockery of the “best league in Africa” saying is that the Zimbabwean fan does not fill the terraces. While in countries like Egypt, big clubs can have an attendance of 70 000, in Zimbabwe it is unheard of for the 60 000 seat National Sports Stadium to have no empty seat in club matches. Even when the two most supported clubs, Dynamos and Highlanders clash a crowd of plus 35 000 is a rarity.
One of the stand-out measures of a good league is its foreign imports. The South African league has players from all over the world, Brazilians included, who are attracted by the irresistible pull of the Rand. Zimbabwe only boasts of a few Zambians and Ghanaians whose football skills are open to question.
Most would state that Dynamos’ runs in the Champions League have not been emulated by filthy rich South African clubs hence our league has the right to brag that it’s among the best in Africa. Better than that of Angola, better than that of Botswana, better than that of Zambia, better than that of Mali, better than that of Senegal.
But the reality is that it is the South African league that contains the most technically gifted players. Watching Orlando Pirates, Kaizer Chiefs, Mamelodi Sundowns and Ajax Cape Town toying with the opposition you would be inclined to agree. The number of players who were hailed as brilliant in Zimbabwe but failed to light the stage in South Africa is embarrassing.
Murape Murape the best player in 2007 went down under and failed massively before coming back to Dynamos to win more plaudits and accolades. Kingston Nkhata, a predatory striker, is struggling to find goals at Free State Stars, but at home he banged them week in week out.
Highlanders Captain, Gilbert Banda has trotted to South Africa many a time for trials without success but the media at home sees him as one of the most complete defenders to emerge in Zimbabwe.
Still want more? I will spare you the details.
All the above players and more are of quality but to shine so brightly at home and to fail so badly just across the Limpopo River raises the suspicion that perhaps they are brilliant because they face mediocre opposition.
It is also embarrassing that the clubs that are seen as the foundation of our football are still far away from being professional. Dynamos and Highlanders the so-called most successful, best supported teams in the land are poor as a church mouse. Every year their best players leave for better paying clubs or threaten to leave.
They struggle to pay salaries prompting players to go on strike. The uniforms they wear are of poor quality. Compare all this with South African football giants and you come away with egg on your face. Kaizer Chiefs, Orlando Pirates, Mamelodi Sundowns and Ajax Cape Town are astoundingly rich.  Their players are pampered with hefty salaries and live large.
Kaizer Chiefs and Mamelodi Sundowns are sponsored by Nike, Orlando Pirates and Ajax Cape Town by Adidas. Unlike Dynamos and Highlanders who use the same kit through the season, these South African giants have the privilege of throwing away jerseys after use. 
Certainly there is nothing wrong to dancing to our own drumbeat and hailing our league as one of the best in Africa but we should not sweep the dirt that screams to the contrary under the carpet.
Let us swallow the bitter pill and admit that our league is far from being the best and most exciting. A lot will have to be done for us to be viewed among the best and for that to happen huge capital needs to be pumped into football.
Unless and until that happens our league will be the best to us not to Africa.

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