Harare, Zimbabwe – With organized football suspended in Zimbabwe due to the coronavirus pandemic, the country’s long-suffering footballers have once again turned to ‘gambling’ to make ends meet.
On average, a club player earns 5,000 Zimbabwe dollars per month (50 dollars officially but 16 dollars on the black market). The salary is lower in the lower divisions.
In the absence of international matches, these footballers therefore resorted to unauthorized matches – deemed illegal by their own clubs – which are also prohibited by government lockdown rules.
Normally, crowds would play a huge role in these inter-township football rivalries in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. Up to 5,000 spectators jostling for a glimpse of the end-to-end action from the sidelines could be seen during a high-level match.
However, since the coronavirus outbreak, large crowds have reportedly attracted unwanted attention from the military and police.
As a result, these matches now start at 8:00 am local time (06:00 GMT) to avoid a high number of spectators.
“Money games” have been played in Zimbabwe for years when, during the offseason, some of the country’s top league players appear in a desperate attempt to supplement their meager income.
But now matches are seeing an increase in the number of top players who are left out with sanctioned football currently suspended and most top clubs not paying players during the forced break.
These players expose themselves to career-threatening injuries given the poor quality pitches on which they play these matches.
“Our team has been silent on us since the lockdown began in March 2020 and we haven’t been paid a dime,” Malvern Chiketa, who plays for second tier club Eiffel Flats, told Al Jazeera.
“I play these gambling games to make money and also to stay in shape for next season.”
An Eiffel Flats official, who asked to remain anonymous, said the club was “broke and in trouble” and unable to pay salaries.
Midfielder Tendai Huwa, whose contract with top club Triangle FC expired in December 2019 and was not renewed due to uncertainty, featured in one of the matches.
“I am broken stone,” Huwa told Al Jazeera. “I couldn’t buy groceries for my family for Christmas, so I have to play here. If we don’t play football, we don’t get paid. “
Zimbabwe has reported more than 27,000 coronavirus cases with 713 deaths, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University.
A nationwide curfew, a ban on gatherings and a month-long shutdown of non-essential businesses were announced earlier this month.
As a result, police and security officials have increasingly cracked down on these matches.
On Christmas Eve, police and soldiers armed with batons forcibly dispersed players and crowds on a dusty football pitch in Glen Norah, a town populated by Harare, ahead of a series of matches between former rivals from the suburb of Glen Norah and Highfield.
The show of force did not stop the games, mainly due to the financial burden on payers.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, most of Zimbabwe’s football clubs were already strapped for financial resources.
League officials said the country could not afford the biosecurity technology required to play football, which led to last season’s abandonment in hopes of a resumption of sporting activities shattered by the January 5th lockdown which is in place for an additional month.
Since restrictions are unlikely to be fully relaxed anytime soon, the 2021 season, whenever it kicks off, is likely to see empty pits, a difficult situation as nearly every club in the county depends on income from the doors to survive.
The cheapest ticket costs as little as $ 1, and the biggest teams – Dynamos, Highlanders and CAPS United – can attract some 25,000 fans.
‘At least it’s something’
On dusty courts, for as little as $ 400 in “winner takes it all” prizes, players send in mid-air tackles and many try to survive the test for a slice of the money they badly need.
Matches continued to be played during the lockdown. Crowds gather without social distancing or masks.
The prize money, in most cases, comes from local football enthusiasts with cash to spare.
The “sponsors” on both sides put forward $ 200 each with the sum shared by the winning team. In the case of a draw, the teams share $ 100 each, with the sponsors keeping the rest.
“I aspire to become a FIFA licensed player’s agent, so I invested my money in these matches because I want these talented young footballers to be under my wings when I finally qualify,” a sponsor, who is a well-known second. handmade clothing trader, told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
“I give them these games as an incentive and to keep them close to me as much as possible.”
Normally, a player hopes to win at least $ 10 if their team wins. In some cases, sponsors pay more to famous players without the knowledge of their teammates.
Spectators are also getting involved, placing bets on their favorite local teams and players.
“I put my money on (name withheld). He scores for fun, ”Glen Norah, a resident of Munya Chikerema, who has traveled more than 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) to Mbare told Al Jazeera.
Vernon Mhlanga, a 55-year-old resident of Mbare and a die-hard fan of Dynamos – Zimbabwe’s biggest and most successful club – said he was “depressed” to miss some top action this year and be now comforts of “money games”.
“This is the first time in 30 years that a whole year has gone by without me going to the stadium to watch the Dynamos,” Mhlanga told Al Jazeera.
“Dynamos means the world to me. This great club has its roots here in Mbare so it means a lot to this community. The lack of league football this year really depresses me. That’s why I come to watch these games because at least I can see some of the youngsters from the big clubs. It’s not the real thing, but at least it’s something.
Fans, players and officials all agree these are uncertain times with more of the same to follow. But Zimbabwe’s Premier Soccer League (PSL) are optimistic that top-level football will return this year.
“Anyway, we will start the new season in March, even if it means getting vaccinated,” said Kennedy Ndebele, CEO of PSL.
“We need to get permission from the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Sports. We are currently developing a proposal. The most likely scenario is that we will resume in March, with games being played behind closed doors. “
There is also the question of income and how the clubs are going to make ends meet without the supporters in the stands.
“We are looking for measures to make sure all clubs stay afloat,” Ndebele added.