Africa, Economy & Trade, Headlines, Labour

ZIMBABWE: Football Fails to Feed Families

Ignatius Banda

BULAWAYO, Sep 18 2009 (IPS) - Football was never a ticket to fabulous wealth in Zimbabwe, at least not for players who stayed in the country. But the economic situation has made it ever harder to play simply for the pride and pleasure of pulling on local team colours.

Few Zimbabwean footballers will earn as much as Manchester City's Benjani Mwaruwari. Credit:  Wikimedia

Few Zimbabwean footballers will earn as much as Manchester City's Benjani Mwaruwari. Credit: Wikimedia

Before the economic downturn in the late 1990s, the simple pride of appearing for the local team inspired many young Zimbabwean footballers, who were not necessarily choosing soccer as a career to earn a living.

Players past and present agree it was rather a love for the sport, the chance to exhibit one's skills on the dusty football pitch to the envy of the community that drove players.

There was a time when in addition to their wages, Zimbabwean footballers would receive stipends from wealthy fans. But supporting a team by attending football matches is a luxury not many can afford. Clubs' finances have suffered along with the rest of the economy.

"We (players) just do not get enough as our teams depend on gate takings. If supporters do not come to our matches, it means we do not get paid," says Gilbert Banda, a celebrated defender who has made two appearances for the national team.

Zimbabwe's Premier Soccer League has imposed a salary cap on players' salaries, setting wages at between 100 and 150 U.S. dollars a month, with another $30 in match bonuses. But the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions insists that players – like anyone else – must get a living wage, which the country's Central Statistical Office estimate should be at least $400. The ZCTU concedes some workers take home as little as $20 a month – teachers are earning around $150.

"There is no money here," another player told IPS, speaking on condition his real name not be used for fear of punishment by his club for speaking to the press about poor salaries.   "I used to play for one of the country's top clubs in the capital city (Harare)," the player said, "but that was the worst time of my life as I was forced to live in a shack, because I had no accommodation of my own."

Banda agrees. "People see us on the pitch and they think we are living the life. But we cannot eat celebrity," he said. "We have families, but how can we feed them if our clubs are not giving us what we need? Football is our only source of income."   Player revolts have become common as players press for better remuneration. Several months ago players at Monomotapa Football Club threatened to boycott matches after a pay dispute with club officials. Another club is being threatened with relegation because players are refusing to turn up for matches, citing non-payment of salaries.

In their efforts to be heard, players in the top division, the Premier Soccer League (PSL), petitioned the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions to lobby for better remuneration, after revelations players were being paid as little as 70 U.S. dollars a month.

Players who spoke to IPS say there remains no clear union for them to present their grievances to either the PSL or the ZCTU, so their plight is set to continue, despite the ZCTU’s insistence that the players' labour rights are being violated.

"Soccer players are also workers who have families to fend for, and are therefore also entitled to earn a living wage," said Wellington Chibebhe, ZCTU secretary-general. But players bemoan the fact that they are not formally represented by any organised union, making collective bargaining with team officials impossible.

But club officials insist they cannot meet player demands. Kennedy Ndebele, secretary general of the PSL, told IPS he could not comment on player grievances, despite the fact that player boycotts over pay could lead to the suspension of the league as clubs are unable to field full teams.

"It has been terrible for these local footballers," said Engelbert Phiri, a Zimbabwean soccer analyst now based South Africa. "Some who moved to the South African premier league are getting what their counterparts in Zimbabwe can only dream of."

The comparisons are painful – and an illustration of the enormous differences in football's fortunes in different parts of Africa. Just across the border in South Africa, corporate sponsorship and money from television broadcast rights means the average wage for players in that country's top division is around $1,600 a month. Top players at clubs like Kaizer Chiefs and Mamelodi Sundowns are earning more than $20,000 a month.

And like many others, Zimbabwean footballers are desperate to move to greener fields. "I remember a player from the (Zimbabwe) premier league selling soccer boots to raise money to illegally cross the border to South Africa. He had already talked to some guys who were supposed to smuggle him through the border," Phiri said.

Crossing the border is only the first difficult step on the road to footballing riches. For every Zimbabwean to strike it rich overseas – players like Chiefs' Onismor Bhasera or Benjani Mwaruwari, who is believed to be earning nearly $100,000 a week at English club Manchester City, many other possibly equally talented players fail to make it.

As South Africa prepares for the 2010 World Cup, the sport's most extravagant and costly stage, one wonders how much will filter back beyond its frontiers – borders that may not matter much to the pint-sized dreamers in Bulawayo, Bukavu or Bamenda, chasing plastic balls between stone goalposts in the dusty streets.

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