FEATURED: While The Football Was Away …


In February 2022, The International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) suspended Zimbabwe’s membership over allegations of government interference in ZIFA’s affairs. We can bicker endlessly about the merits of the suspension itself (and the laws surrounding it), but there is no debating this— it sucks to be us. 

zimbabwe cricket supporters at 2022 icc t20 world cup australia vs bangladesh
Zimbabwe cricket supporters cheer their team on at the ICC T20 World Cup 2022 in Australia during Zimbabwe's game v Bangladesh. PIC: ICC/Getty

It is humiliating; there are only two currently suspended countries out of the 211 FIFA members. Only eleven countries have been suspended at all in the 21st century, and we are one of them. It is heartbreaking, in all honesty. It is that heart-wrenching stuff of epic proportions. 

But we hazard here in this piece to give this deeply sombre feeling a bit of words.

Despite the upsurge in the popularity of other sports, football is still, by far, the most popular and most accessible sport in the country; and it is an utter shame that the denizens of the teapot-shaped landmass do not get to cheer on their national team or local clubs in continental competitions. 

That children are coming of age without the opportunity to see their hometown heroes vanquish some foreign foe. It is costly. In addition to what revenue may come from participation in continental matches and tournaments (both club and country), the suspension also means that Zimbabwe does not receive any funding for FIFA; funding that could have further developed the game across various levels. 

But perhaps the financial cost is trumped by the opportunity cost here. There are (at least)* two Zimbabwean players in the English Premier League, and one in La Liga, as well as several others, splattered around top-tier and mid-tier leagues around the world; and these immensely gifted footballing talents are missing out on donning the prestigious yellow and green of the Warriors whilst still in their prime. 

The “diaspora generation” is coming of age now, and are choosing/will be having to choose national team allegiances in the very near future. 

Between a host country that has nurtured their talents and a homeland that doesn’t have a national team to speak of, what choice do they have? 

Two decades ago, when the Warriors began their foray into the African Cup of Nations (AFCON), we worked our way up the FIFA rankings to a respectable 46th, putting us just outside the top 20% of the world’s national teams in 2004. While our decline has been steady since then (we currently sit at 125), this ban has to be the nadir.

And, yet, from the seeming abyss of a football-less existence, a phenomenon is spread across the land. Perhaps it has always been there, but our attention has been too rapt in two 45-minute half intervals at any given time to notice. 

But, indeed, other sports, other contests, and other prolific flag-bearers have risen up to satisfy the Zimbabwean people’s hunger to cheer for their nation in sport, on international stages. 

Here are a few exploits to celebrate that have happened since the FIFA ban:

  1. The Flight of the Chevrons

At the moment of writing, Zimbabwean Men’s national cricket team, has just defeated the mighty Pakistan by one run in the Super 12 of the T20 World Cup 2022,  in one of the most nail-biting finishes in all of sport this year. In another nerve-wrecking Super 12 encounter versus old foes Bangladesh, the Chevrons fought valiantly in the match, losing by only 3 runs to the Tigers.

En-route to qualifying for the second stage, they vanquished the Republic of Ireland and Scotland, with the two victories sandwiching a loss to the West Indies, and have since drawn with South Africa in the first match of the Super 12, before today’s heroics. 

The T20 World Cup comes at the end of a year in which the Chevrons have beaten Bangladesh 2-1 in both a T20 and ODI series, defeated Australia by three wickets in the final game of an ODI series in September (first ever victory against Australia in Australia), as well as a pretty convincing qualification run to the current World Cup.

Beyond the field of play, however, the resurgence of the national cricket team has socio-cultural significance. 

At the beginning of the 2003 World Cup, in which Zimbabwe was a co-host, Zimbabwean cricketers Andy Flower and Henry Olonga protested the “death of democracy in Zimbabwe” by donning black armbands for their opening match, much to the chagrin of the country’s leaders. While the two found exile in the UK; the moment itself became a seminal point in Zimbabwean cricket. 

Throughout the nineties and until then, Zimbabwe has had a decent presence among the global elite, but the team—in both personnel and culture— appeared a relic of the colonial era, defined by its de-facto middle class aesthetic that made it inaccessible to the masses. 

After the protest and until recently, the country had become a pariah within the cricket world and many of the more senior players had fled to pastures yonder; with a new generation battling to make up lost time and reassert our presence among the paragons of ball-and-bat. Seems like it’s finally coming together now. 

The team, in its impressive and notable diversity, represents a much-yearned-for sporting utopia that may have seemed all but unachievable during the more dogged parts of the nation’s history. 

Perhaps most palpably and excitingly, fans across demographics—race, class, gender, faith, political affiliations, level of cricket knowledge, etc. and etc.—have taken ownership of the sport. And they have done so in a lovingly affable manner that inspires hope, motivation, and healthy doses of unity and positivity. 

The Zimbabwean fans are fast becoming some of the most visible in the game, defined by an impassioned enthusiasm and charged-up national loyalty that had hitherto been reserved for the Warriors: one glance at the Castle Corner should tell you that story. Some may perceive borderline eccentricity in all this, but that is what gives the game its electric pulse and liveliness; it is what makes cricket a memorable experience.

  1. The Glittering Gems

The Zimbabwean national senior netball team, affectionately known as the Gems, finished third in a hard-fought World Cup 2023 qualifying tournament, scalping the likes of Botswana, Namibia and Zambia on their way to securing a second consecutive qualification to the World Cup!

The effortlessly amiable and charm-radiating Gems fared well in the 2019 World Cup, finishing 8th out of 16. Long in the shadow of football, even at primary school level, netball has covered huge strides across its various levels and, most visibly, in the senior game.

The nation pins its hopes on the ladies next year, and, just like cricket, Zimbabwean netball has been authoring a lovely story of sheer hope, determination, and success. It is an exciting time to be alive.

  1. The Charge of the Sables…

There has been a lot of activity on the Zimbabwean rugby front as of late—perhaps there always has been, and the casual fan may have not noticed with all the football in the way! 

In April 2022, the Young Sables (Under 20 national mens’ team) defeated Madagascar, Tunisia, and Namibia in the final to win the Barthes Trophy in Nairobi. A week later, the Rugby Sevens men’s national team qualified for the Sevens World Cup, held this past September. 

Despite a so-so outing at the tournament, it was good having them there and finishing with somewhat of a flourish against Jamaica. Yep. 

Most heartbreaking was the Zimbabwe senior national team’s pursuit of its first Rugby World Cup berth since 1991, in which they came so agonizingly close in July. And we say agonizingly because in truth that is what it was—so so close. 

After a good run to the semi-finals of the qualifiers in which they defeated the likes of Cote D’Ivoire, the Sables succumbed 34-19 to eventual winners Namibia. In a format where only the winner is guaranteed a place at the Rugby World Cup and the runner-up goes for continental qualifiers, we can do a lot more than be ashamed at the Sables’ valiant charge. Onwards and upwards! Another lovingly positive story there...while football was away.

  1. Take Money takes the world by Storm

The very month that FIFA locked Zimbabwe out of the beautiful game, another warrior was coming to the fore: Kudakwashe ‘Take Money’ Chiwandire.

Pivoting from karate to boxing in 2015, Take Money came into the year with a respectable 5-2-1 record, and ascended to the World Boxing Council (WBC) Interim Super-Bantamweight title after defeating Zambian pugilist Catherine Phiri. 

This October, she retained the title after clobbering Mexican challenger Zulina Munoz at the Harare International Conference Center.

Outside of the legendary Proud ‘Kilimanjaro’ Chinembiri, a(n often tenuous) claim to Derreck Chisora, and a couple others, Zimbabwe has not historically been known for its rich boxing legacy; at least not internationally (less still in the Women’s game.) 

Take Money’s triumph also marked the first ever WBC-sanctioned fight to be hosted in Zimbabwe. These are delightful stories of Zimbabwean sporting excellence.

  1. A Flame Reborn - Zimbabwe Women’s Hockey

Lest there be any confusion or historic erasure, the Zimbabwean Women’s hockey team is the most successful national sports team in the nation’s history. The Flames boast gold medals at the 1980 Olympics and the inaugural Hockey African Cup of Nations in 1990, followed by a silver and bronze medal in the latter in 1994 and 1998 respectively. 

Despite a regression in the past two decades, the team has been going through something of a renaissance in recent years. And we’re here for it.

At the same time the football AFCON was happening this past January, the Flames were doing battle in Ghana at the hockey African Cup of Nations. After starring in the group stages and making into the quarter-finals, the ladies lost to hosts Ghana, before losing to Kenya in the third/fourth playoff in a penalty shootout. 

Tough-break after a solid showing, but they had resiliently and passionately put the nation on their back, even if their achievements were overshadowed by the contemporaneous disappointments coming out of the AFCON.

But the Flames’ year of excellence did not end just then. In a qualifying tournament for the All-African Games (a tournament in which they have also medaled a few times in the past)  held at St John’s College in Harare, they secured their place at the games next year with much aplomb, defeating Malawi 11-0 in doing so. The men’s hockey team will also be at the games!

  1. The Answer’s Right Here.

As with a few other entries on this list, the story of Themba Takura Gorimbo would make for a fantastic movie. Currently ranked 1st out of 35 active South Africa Pro Welterweights, the Masvingo-hailing pugilist has gone through the whole gauntlet of the 21st century Zimbabwean experience; from the makorokoza grind to an ill-fated stint in South Africa, before discovering he could make a career out of punching the lights out of people.

Currently 10-3 (ten wins, three losses) in his career, “The Answer”  defeated Brazilian fighter Julio Rodrigues, ranked 71st out of 1002 Pro Welterweights in the US, in New Orleans this past June. He’s in the mix of the elites, and we’re rooting for him.

  1. Cometh the Moment, Cometh the Geniuses: Tynwald High School Robotics Team

Cometh the moment, cometh the geniuses.

In the immediate aftermath of losing their peers in the tragic bus disaster that occurred on October 14th, The Tynwald High School robotics team won the gold XPRIZE Innovator Award for developing an innovative solution to combat climate change at the 2022 FIRST Global Challenge competition held in Geneva, Switzerland. If ever a community needed a win, this was it.

This is, in the strictest of terms, obviously not a sporting win; but perhaps that is the point: there are other areas in which we can compete on a global level. For an educational system often derided for not keeping up with the fast-paced innovations of the modern world, this win was pleasant to see.

  1. The Lady Chevrons

While I could have collapsed this entry with that of the Chevrons from earlier on in this write-up, it was clear that the Zimbabwe women’s national cricket team deserved its own slot on this list. Long in the shadows of the Chevrons, the women’s national cricket team has been stealthily making noteworthy moves in recent times.

On the field of play, the Lady Chevrons recently participated in the ICC T20 World Cup qualifying tournament in the United Arab Emirates, and ran havoc: opening the tournament with five straight wins against USA, UAE, Thailand, Scotland and Papua New Guinea. 

Eventual losses to UAE and Ireland condemned them to third place and, in circumstances gut-wrenchingly similar to those of the Sables (as described in #3), only the top two teams qualified for the World Cup.

Beyond the field of play, however, the Lady Chevrons are also a great representation of what a vibrant sporting fraternity should look like. They have been seen at the Gems’ netball games (and other spaces), vocally cheering their compatriots on. 

It is also worth noting that, as explained by Zimbabwean Cricket media manager Yvonne Tendai Mangunda, “Lady Chevrons are the only Zimbabwean national women’s team with full-time contracts otherwise known as national team contracts or central contracts…What it means is that the selected players with contracts get salaries whether they are playing or not. Injured or not injured.”

That’s cool.

  1. A Moot Point

Perhaps the future is not sport-laden after all. Our second non-sport entry also sees high school students excelling on a global stage. In May, a team of Zimbabwean high school students, aged between 14 and 18 and drawn from high schools, was crowned world champions after winning the International High School Moot Court competition held in the US (virtually.) A team from New York City came second.

We were not done. In July, the team followed up their triumph by winning the 2022 European Moot Court Championships in Romania following a hard-fought victory against the Netherlands.

(Moot court is a co-curricular activity where high school or law school students take part in simulated court sessions, usually involving participation in mock oral arguments.)

The kids are alright.

  1. Blinky Goes to Belgium

And since the impetus behind this letter is, indeed, football—or rather, the lack thereof—it is only right that I close out the list with a glimmer of hope about the beautiful game. After all, despite all that’s been said and done, bhora remains the most popular sport in the nation by some margin. 

I’m willing to venture that our inevitably ill-fated AFCON run at the beginning of the year still received more viewership and attention by the Zim public than all the entries on this list combined.

We still want our football. We scratch our noses and cross our fingers for its return sooner than later. And our optimism is fueled by the brilliance of such young players as Bill Antonio.

After an incredible breakout season with Dynamos, many wondered if the hype around the (then) teenage sensation was all hot-air symptomatic of age-old social and media bias towards the Glamour Boys. As the debate raged on, however, Belgian top-flight club KV Mechelen spotted him and, after a month-long trial in July, signed him on a two-year deal. 

Since then ‘Blinky’ Bill Antonio has scored on his debut for the club’s U-21 team this month, and looks to be at the foot of what shall be a storied career. And perhaps, just perhaps, the emergence of Blinky, along with a host of other young footballers who are cutting their teeth in the unforgiving terrain of FIFA’s wilderness, will light a fire under the relevant officials and get things straightened. 

We want our football back.

Nota Bene: While pains have been taken by the writer to find compelling entries for this list, it is still the rambling opinions of one man. Furthermore, this is obviously not an exhaustive list: you can charge that to space, the writer’s memory, and/or just missing some news. As such, if an achievement you believe should have been listed is not on here, just drop it in the comments section!

(Special s/o to the queen of Zim Sports Media, Yvonne Tendai Mangunda from whose regular social media updates I’ve picked up more than half of this list over the course of 2022.)

*Shingirirai Mavima writes here in his personal capacity and you can get in touch with him via his social platforms.

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