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Mugabe passing reminds Zimbabwe of faded hope, on and off the field

17:26 BST 06/09/2019
Robert Mugabe World Cup
The former president’s death comes as the country finds itself at a particularly low sporting ebb

The announcement of Robert Mugabe’s death on Friday served as a reminder of Zimbabwe’s faded hope and failed promise, although it’s a journey that could relate to the country’s football as well as the state of the nation.

The ex-guerrilla chief was Zim’s first independent leader following the end of white minority rule in 1980, but despite ushering in promises of economic improvement and emancipation, his extended tenure was overshadowed by alleged human rights violations and domestic turmoil.

Considered a dictator in some quarters, Mugabe’s initial early support faded soon after he was appointed prime minister, and Zim’s economy—once a beacon of optimism for African agriculture—declined dramatically.

Mugabe resigned in 2017, although his anti-neo-colonialist rhetoric enjoyed something of a resurgence following the struggles of his successor Emmerson Mnangagwa, despite the deplorable state of the country’s economy in the aftermath of the former president’s divisive reign and policies.

Not everyone held the same view on Mugabe, of course, independence heroes have that effect.

“Rest in peace, Gushungo,” wrote Zimbabwe goalkeeper George Chigova on WhatsApp earlier, referring to Mubage’s Shona totemic clan.

His passing has served as a reminder of how the hope that accompanied Zimbabwean independence—the nation was once the regional breadbasket after all—was replaced by tales of rigged elections, violence and corruption.

Today, problems with Zimbabwe’s economy continue to affect the quality of life, while high unemployment and instability remain staples of daily life in the nation’s capital Harare and beyond, despite the country’s mineral-rich landscape and agricultural history.

Mugabe’s relationship with the sport introduced to Zimbabwe via colonialism was similar to—if not quite as fervent as—Idi Amin’s passion for rugby in neighbouring Uganda, where he’d be a regular at the Kampala Rugby Club, singing rugby songs and the occasional Scottish ballard.

Mugabe was an avid boxer, a football addict, and later revealed that he was a fan of Chelsea and Barcelona.

While the former president acknowledged that his boxing skills far overshadowed his footballing ability as a youngster, he was a keen watcher of the continent’s favourite sport.

"When I watch soccer, I do not want anyone to disturb me," he told journalists seven years before his death.

"Even my wife knows where to sit because while they are scoring in the field I will also be scoring at home, kicking everything in front of me.”

It was poignant for Zimbabwe that Mugabe’s passing was announced only hours after the nation’s national football team—the Warriors—endured one of the worst results in their history, a 1-0 defeat by Somalia in Thursday’s World Cup First Round first leg match.

For context, the victory was the Ocean Stars’ first ever in World Cup qualifying, their first qualifying victory of any kind since 1984—four years after Zim’s independence, and their first win at all since January 2009.

The match was hosted in neutral Djibouti due to security concerns in Mogadishu amidst the ongoing Somali Civil War, while the chasm between the two sides in the Fifa World Rankings is stark.

Heading into the match, Zim were ranked 112th in the world, 90 places ahead of Somali, who are Africa’s joint lowest ranked team along with Eritrea.

Despite the absence of star man Khama Billiat, and even taking into account the potential—particularly in Africa—of one-off shock results away from home, this was a dismal return for the Warriors, and one of the national team’s darkest hours.

Once upon a time, Zimbabwe were one match away from qualifying for the 1994 World Cup, only to be defeated by Cameroon and miss out on a spot at the global showpiece.

This was following the federation’s decision to alter their policy and allow dual-nationality players—such as Liverpool’s Bruce Grobbelaar—to play for the southern Africans, and which preceded the nation’s highest ranking—56th place—in the ELO ranking in April 1995.

In 1995, Zimbabwe also achieved their highest ranking in the Fifa World Rankings—40th—but have slipped out of the top 100 over the last decade.

Their worst ranking of 131 came in 2016, although the Warriors remain a significant notch or two above Somalia, one of the continent’s genuine minnows.

Sport has been a critical part of the narrative of Zimbabwean identity, both from the state-controlled racial structures of colonial rule, to its role within the nationalist struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, to its place as a restorer of pride and confidence among the black populace post-Independence.

So accessible was football during those pre-Independence years, that local nationalist leaders would capitalise on the gatherings to promote the burgeoning political consciousness and sow the seeds of a future independent state.

It’s a story that had been repeated earlier, many times, across the continent, and it’s no coincidence that a soccer match between Zim and Zambia was, along with Bob Marley’s concert at Rufaro Stadium, one of the memorable elements of the independence celebrations that swept the country in 1980.

In recent years, Zim have struggled to build on the momentum of the 1980s or the promise of the 1990s, where Reinhard Fabisch’s ‘Dream Team’ had the potential to be an African powerhouse.

Government interference in the running of the Zimbabwe Football Association prompted threats of a suspension from Fifa, while debts mounted amidst economic strife domestically, there were accusations of match-fixing, and the Warriors failed to qualify for five tournaments between their two appearances in 2004 and 2006, and their return to the continent’s top table in 2017.

They haven’t won a game in the competition in 13 years, and were eliminated in the group stage of this year’s edition despite noble performances against Egypt and Uganda.

Things have improved in recent years, of course, but the defeat by Somalia represents a new nadir for a generation that had been tipped to break new ground in the African game.

There is a sense that the national team’s fortunes will forever be bound by the state of the nation itself—even though defeat by Somalia isn’t the best occasion to make that point.

As Zimbabwe stands at a crossroads in its own destiny, with Mugabe’s passing serving as a reminder of the faded hope and failed promise, so the Warriors find themselves at a juncture of their own.

Elimination by Somalia, at this early stage, would be unfathomable for a country who once stood on the brink of a spot at the World Cup, but even in this new context of Zimbabwean identity, the Warriors’ potential remains unfulfilled.