By Lot Chitakasha
There are a lot of people who have left their mark on the development of football in Zimbabwe. I plan to do a full article on the various individual club owners such as Delma Lupepe, Eric Rosen and even music legend Thomas Mapfumo who have all tried their best to further this development.
These individuals sacrificed a lot by pouring their hard earned cash into the game and their efforts should be applauded. In this article however I focus on two men who divide opinion among fans but whose contributions cannot be ignored.
Former President Canaan Banana was known in football circles as Zimbabwe’s number one soccer fan. The reason for this is not difficult to discern for any football loving Zimbabwean.
The then President was known for his passionate support of the game and for his religious attendance of all matches involving the national team at home. The fans came to expect this and cheers would engulf Rufaro Stadium or the National Sports Stadium at the sight of that long convoy of cars accompanying him, part of his Presidential motorcade.
His sheer presence added a sense of occasion to the matches. The former President also attended all cup finals. During his era, there were a lot of cup competitions, the ZIFA Cup, Rothmans Cup, Rosebowl Trophy and the Chibuku Trophy, and the man attended them all. He would cap it all by staying on to do the honours of giving the medals and the trophy. I am sure the players were all motivated and honoured by this gesture.
By regularly attending football matches, President Banana made himself a man of the people. He became a member of the football mad family of Zimbabwe football fans as he mingled with the rest of us.
His permanent smile would beam on the photographs as he interacted with the fans without all the burden of officialdom. Indeed he had the common touch and the charisma to go with it.
Apart from attending matches, the President was a qualified referee but above all supported and financed his own football team, State House Tornadoes, later simply Tornadoes.
This team had some really good players when they played in the then Super league. I remember the team for their imported uniforms which made them look professional. In this team, there were some really good players.
When they started they had talented players like, Fanuel Aribeto, Mandla Balanda, Alan Jalasi, Cosmas Pritchard, Noah Cox, Arthur Tutani, Mphumelelo Dzowa. They later brought in David Mwanza, John Phiri and Ernest Makosa. This was a strong line up which gave established team like Dynamos and Caps United a run for their money. At one point they also had Edward Katsvere in the team although his stay was short lived.
State House Tornadoes had a few good years in the Super League, they later joined with Darryn Textiles to become Darryn T. They had an impact and it is a fact that the team gave a number of players an opportunity to showcase their talents.
The President was also known for his support for college football and at one stage made the University of Zimbabwe team a force to reckon with in the lower divisions.
It was this team which groomed some of Zimbabwe’s top players like Benjani Mwaruwaru and Tauya Murehwa. There are many others like Trust Semwayo, they called him Chola, who did not quite make it but who were equally talented. College football became exciting all thanks to this football loving President.
A flip side to the public persona of the President emerged from the trial of Jefta Dube who had been charged with the murder of a colleague during a musical show at Gwanzura Stadium. Jefta had been the President’s body guard and was apparently angered by his colleague’s mockery of him as the President’s wife.
It was at this juncture that fans who had previously adored the President began to question’s his integrity. Jefta had been spotted while playing for Black Mambas football club before joining the President’s protection unit.
At the trial, he testified that he had been drugged then sexually abused by the President. The President dismissed these accusations as the machinations of his political opponents. However, many more former workers and players then testified about the President’s behaviour.
Homosexuality is regarded as an abomination in culturally conservative Zimbabwe. Current President, Robert Mugabe has described gay people as worse than pigs. With this stance from the highest authority in the land, President Banana stood no chance.
In 1998 he was found guilty and sentenced to eleven years, nine of which were suspended. He however served eight months in an open prison and after his release he continued to protest his innocence and to describe homosexuality as “deviant, abominable and wrong.” The die was however cast and his status in the eyes of his former fans was diminished.
Fans like fans always do wondered if his keen interest in football was genuine or whether it was rooted in his fascination with the boys. The debate continues in hushed tones although many who interacted with him are reluctant to discuss it openly.
At his death, in November 2003, he was not accorded the National hero status “as a matter of principle” according to the then minister of information, Nathan Shamuyarira. This was a statement pregnant with meaning.
Indeed President Banana will always divide opinion, but his role in football development in Zimbabwe cannot be disputed.
Another personality who divides opinion in the Zimbabwe football fraternity is Polish coach Wieslow Grabowski. He came to Zimbabwe on a government exchange programme in 1985 and has stayed on ever since.
He has had stints with the under 23 and senior national team with various degrees of success. Most of his achievements have been with his favourite Darryn T. He started off with Darryn Textiles which then merged with Tornadoes to form Darryn T.
Many fans acknowledge that Grabowski has done a lot to develop football in Zimbabwe. He has worked in Chitungwiza and identified a lot of young footballers who have become real stars. The most prominent of these are Gift Muzadzi, Norman Mapeza, Llyod Chitembwe, Stewart Murisa, Alois Bunjira, Engelbert Dinha, Costa Nhamoinesu, Dickson Choto, Takesure Chinyama, Felix Antonio, Shingi Kawondera and Musareka Janitala.
These are only the crème de la crème but there are many others whom he has spotted who did not quite make it. These players will acknowledge that Grobowski gave them a break in football and used his links abroad to develop their international careers.
The highlight of his career in Zimbabwe football was in 1992 when his Darryn T hammered odds on favourites Caps United by four goals to nil in a Castle Cup final. This was a team full of young players like Bunjira, Mapeza, Murisa and Antonio.
The result was a shock for fans but for many it made them realise what could be achieved if young players are given the opportunity to perform. This will forever be Graboswiki greatest contribution to Zimbabwe football.. giving young players a chance.
Grabowski also spiced his teams with some foreign signings helping to give the league an international appeal. Prominent players at his team were Webster Chikabala and Derby Makinka, an immensely talented attacking midfielder.
Attendance levels increased remarkably as fans came to witness these foreign imports. Derby Makinka in particular illuminated the local scene with his dazzling skills and fans could not get enough of him.
Graboswiki’s products have made an immense contribution to Zimbabwean football. All the players mentioned above have had stints with the national teams at various levels.
Norman Mapeza captained and later coached the national team and I give credit to Grobowski for plucking him from the dusty streets of Chitungwiza. Grabowski’s work also reveals that there are many diamonds waiting to be unearthed but the net has to be cast wide and it also takes dedication to the cause.
However, there is another side of Grabowski that any balanced observer cannot ignore. Many have accused him of taking advantage of young players, making them sign long contracts, selling them abroad and reaping the rewards.
Media practitioners like Robson Sharuko have embarked on a personal crusade to expose what they term modern slavery with regards to the manner in which contracts are designed.
The case of Kelvin Bulaji a young player contracted to D.T. Africa United, can be used as an example. An article by Sharuko stated that Bulaji was struggling to free himself from the bondage, the chains of contract obligations with the club. The strong language used here says a lot about the writer’s perception of the young man’s predicament.
The article claimed that Bulaji had to pay a staggering £300-000 pounds to release himself from the contract unless he found a foreign club to join.
If he failed to do so, his contract would be immediately renewed even without his approval. The writer wondered how the young man was expected to find such an amount when D.T. Africa United were paying him a monthly salary of US$120.
At the time of writing , the case was still rumbling although Bulaji had since moved to Caps United and later Dynamos. In all this Grabowski insists that he did nothing wrong and that he was trying to help the young man become the next big star in Zimbabwe football.
If the above case was the highlight, there are others. Shingi Kawondera, once tipped to be the new star of Zimbabwe football, the new Peter Ndlovu is a vocal critique of his former mentor. He accuses him of using him and others.
He is bitter that he did not get his due rewards. Many have dismissed these outbursts as sour grapes but there is a recurrent theme here. Maybe there is something rotten in this vast empire that Graboswiki has built. Yes, he has done his best to identify talent, in the process he has earned himself a small fortune, but did this all come at the expense of the players? It is a question begging further investigation.
Indeed former President Canaan Banana and Wiesław Grabowski divide opinion among the fans and football pundits. What cannot be disputed is that the Zimbabwe football story cannot be complete without acknowledging the part they played in the development of football in Zimbabwe.