Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Zimbabwe football is horrible, terrible

The Zimbabwean football is horrible. Terrible. At the beginning of the Castle Lager Premier League season, I went and watched a league match, a third round clash of a team that was runners-up to the champions twice in a row, playing against well-assembled debutants with an experienced coach, at their home-ground. Weeks later, I watched a televised One Wallet Cup matches when the cream of the country battled it out for a health kitty. What a nightmare, and I am not talking about the embarrassing torn goal nets.

It could be that I made comparisons between the recent 2014 Fifa World Cup matches and the Castle Lager League matches in question, but Oh boy! Even then, I watched South African third division matches in between and I could get the sense that the boys were young and amateurish in their approach but tactically mature.

Highlanders, Dynamos and Caps United are the country’s finest. How Mine are newbies but they traded blows with the continent’s best in the CAF championships. First, it was Highlanders and How Mine playing football on a bad pitch. Both teams hit the ball on sight. They ballooned and blasted the ball around to any direction. They ran, huffed and puffed.

One can advocate for such behaviour in the defensive areas, where you are forgiven to believe that anywhere away from the goal is good enough. That type of football tactics in the preparation zone can never be on. Highlanders midfielders failed to control the ball in midfield. They could not pass the ball to the next available person. Off the ball, they never peeled off from their markers to free themselves. Ball control was a big handicap.

The direct ball from the goalkeeper and the defence to the attacking penalty area characterised How Mine’s game. They tried to pick up a tall striker they did not have. Even with very tall Peter Crouch or Nikola Zigic, that type of play in a top league anywhere in the world is illegal. Vision, accuracy, penetration and decision-making were non-existent.

Dynamos and Caps United also played the type of football that Argentina needed to play in Italia ’90 when they had the racing Cladio Canigia. What was positive about Dembare vs Kepekepe fixture was that, they had the strength and condition to kick long and hard. The ball bounced high from the hard and dry ground, and the players jumped and duelled positively to head the ball.

The match lacked the time and space to control the ball and play it on the ground between teammates. That killed all tactical behaviour of both teams and turned into a very tight and competitive kick and run contest. The two teams spent the afternoon with their eyes elevated to the skies looking at the ball, hoping it would drop next to them. Physios must have attended to many neck injuries.

At one point, it was compelling to assume the teams were playing tricks on the spectators and the TV cameras. What bothered that line of thought was the enthusiasm and energy by which that was being implemented.

Playing a match at full speed without much thought in trying to pry open the opposition threw out of the window the concept of football being an invasion game. Armies never approach war that way. Not all weapons are clandestinely tossed with abandon to the enemies.

One great army general of all time, Shaka Zulu, employed in his warfare two famous strategies relevant to the game. His protective shield was long enough to do its job yet being portable. The spear was redesigned to be short enough to stab. This single aspect meant that the war was literally taken to the enemy. The spears were not hurled to the enemy as that restocked enemy resources and arsenal.

Shaka ensured that his army’s inventory after each attack remained intact. The soldiers reported back with a full complement of the shield and the assegai to initiate the next attack. To make his point, he killed his own men, if they lost any or both.

The second well-known tactical set-up of the strategy was the cow-horn formation. Meant to surprise the enemies, he had the front pathfinders who got the attention of the enemies. The right and left wings encircled the opposition and the whole force pressed in from the front middle and butchered them.

That is the exact concept of playing the game of football. The two matches in question never tried to recreate that scenario. That lack of patterns, patience and plan made it a terrible spectacle. There may be factors that influenced the performances. League encounters may be a different kettle of fish when compared to Cup games and tournaments.  

The standard of the game in Zimbabwe may be deteriorating, because I have watched games from that country during the days of Joel Shambo, Stix Mutizwa, Shaky Tauro and Stanley Ndunduma of Caps United. These played found time to juggle the ball under the monitor of tough defenders like Alexander Maseko, Francis Shonhayi and Sunday Marimo. Shakeman scored with ease and accuracy of the highest level under immense pressure.

Highlanders had great players who played excellent fast, passing football in the likes of Willard Khumalo, Makheyi Nyathi, Benjamin Nkonjera and Madinda Ndlovu. Khumalo was known as the galloping General as he shielded the ball, galloped twice or thrice before making an incisive pass. Dynamos played with great confidence when they had Memory Mucherawowa, Clayton Munemo, Kenneth Jere and the like. They ran rings around teams and controlled matches at will. It may not be fair to make that comparison given that it was a different era, but from that point on, one expected ascendancy.

Zimbabwe has the best quality of players in Central and Southern Africa. The individuals are well groomed and motivated to perform, though not as cultured as the Zambians and the Congolese. That is why from George Nechironga, Gilbert Mushangazhike, Benjamin Mwariwaru to Tinashe Nengomashe, Ezrom Nyandoro, Knowledge Musona and Cheche Billiart, we have seen the best of Zimbabwean players influencing the direction of the South African football.

What then is the problem of the pathetic showing? Methinks the coaching has gone down. The best left the country for ventures in Botswana, Swaziland and overseas. Others left the game altogether. It is never easy for the current crop of coaches to access the resources to utilise latest technique training and follow tactic trends.

Their game gets amateurish frequently and rapidly as desperate players seek to attract attention for contracts outside the borders by trying to be too individualistic. The dire economic situation means there is no money for anything. The football administration lacks quality leadership as the thin corporate world shuns associating with perceived corruption at club level.

Is there a way out? Maybe not out, but for sure there is a way forward. That country recently held a CAF A Licence that they claimed I could not qualify for, being a foreigner. (CAF is for Africans, which is why Namibia enrolled me for one CAF Licence without all the drama.) The training of coaches brings the level playing ground for all teams as the standardised training and implementation of modern methods serves the league.

The country has to identify the philosophy and style of play to be followed by schools, the youth and the top tier teams. The clubs and their owners need to understand that the ‘winning at all cost’ mentality will never help their teams but will surely kill their football completely. Booting the ball all over the show in fear of playing proper football dries the spectatorship levels in the stadia and television. Sponsors will pull the plugs on the existing deals and those outside will never wish to associate with the game.

Sponsors want to associate with a quality product that consumers appreciate and get attracted to. Unfortunately, players running for the same ball, bumping into each other and falling down after clashes, rising from the fall and then blasting the ball to another set of players to do the same cannot be appetising. It is worse if the ball is completely missed as players hit air balloons.

At the midway stage of the league, the Castle Lager Premier League should be showing signs of maturity with players stepping on the ball, picking up teammates with pinpoint passes, neat overlaps and third man runs. The clear plan to achieve an objective must be there for all to see. Goal creation and intent must obviously be priority at club level before anyone laments about the national team. At least, for now, the league top striker has netted 10 times with 50% of the matches to go.

One South African observer claimed that the cream of Zimbabwean players is in South Africa. That does not hold much water because from my observation, RSA televised Varsity football proved a notch better. Many players in that league play in the SAB League, a division three platform, which is a fourth tier league of the country. Those players are not technical close to the Zimbabweans, but they are tactically superior.

The game is in the intensive care unit and a lot needs to be done there. Albert Einstein once said, 'Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds', but a spade is a spade and let the work begin.