Fungai Muderere recently in Malawi
TWENTY years ago, when this writer was less than a year old at secondary school, it was with pain and disbelief that Zimbabweans learnt that the Confederation of African Football (Caf) had stripped the country’s rights to play host to the 2000 Africa Cup of Nations.
Consequently, all sorts of accusations were directed at Africa’s football governing body.
In the process many were made to believe that Zimbabwe was being butted by the Caf’s chain of command for reportedly dissenting a Caf decision by voting for Sepp Blatter in the 1998 Fifa polls against a Caf resolution to go for Uefa football chief Lennart Johansson.
That decision to take away the Afcon finals was also reportedly taken as insult to southern African football with some accusing the then Caf president Issa Hayatou of favouring North and West Africa when it came to staging of Africa’s biggest football extravaganza.
However, Caf made it clear that the reason for their decision was that an inspection team to Zimbabwe had found the country’s stadiums not fit to stage the then 16-team African football festival resulting in their decision to move the tournament to Ghana, and Nigeria.
It rather boggles the mind that two decades down the line, Zimbabweans have woken up to a similar story of “Caf ban Zimbabwean grounds” which is a cause for concern because no stadium is deemed fit for international matches.
Our magnificent Chinese-built giant National Sports Stadium, which was earmarked to be the venue of the 2000 Nations Cup final and Rufaro Stadium, have been condemned.
As if that is not enough, only last week Barbourfields Stadium, a grass-surfaced theatre of football dreams located in Zimbabwe’s second largest city of Bulawayo, was also deemed not fit to play host to international matches by Caf.
This was despite the fact that Emagumeni, a must-visit for all football fanatics, had provisionally been cleared to stage international matches during an inspection held in November last year when National Sports Stadium and Mandava Stadium were condemned.
With the assistance of the Government and Bulawayo City Council (BCC), the Felton Kamambo-led Zifa has been making frantic efforts to have the second leg of the 2021 Afcon qualifier between the Warriors and Algeria played at Emagumeni.
Last week, Government released $13 million to BCC for refurbishment of Barbourfields Stadium.
Zifa had been expected to send pictorial evidence to Caf on Tuesday, with the hope of convincing the continental body to rescind its earlier decision to bar Barbourfields Stadium from playing host to the 2021 Afcon qualifier.
Now we hear that the country’s flagship football team — Warriors — will for the first time in the history of Zimbabwean football play competitive home games on foreign soil.
For we were told 20 years ago that our grounds were of great concern, wouldn’t a ‘‘stitch in time’’ have saved nine?
Those in the Caf corridors of power must be having an elongated laugh and telling Zimbabweans that “it was better to spend a little time and effort to deal with your stadia problem back in year 2000 than to wait until later, when it has now gone worse and will take longer to deal with”.
One shudders in disbelief to learn that at the National Sports Stadium, groundsmen are working on the grass which Caf said should be trimmed to a much lower level than what the authorities had preferred over the years.
The authorities have also been working on the lighting which was deemed poor.
The Government is working on a crash programme to rectify the anomalies at the stadium in the hope that the Caf ban is lifted ahead of the next match.
However, a snail’s pace to attend to stadia problems seems not to be peculiar to Zimbabwe and a recent trip to Malawi was enough to confirm that.
It sent shivers down one’s spine to see Malawi’s football spectators ignoring an order not to watch matches from the cordoned areas at Kamuzu Stadium in Blantyre despite the existing Fifa ban for security reasons.
Fans were seen occupying the cordoned areas when Chicken Inn took part in the just-concluded Energem Bonanza four-team invitational tournament.
The disturbing development reportedly also occurred in August last year when Nyasa Big Bullets played host to FC Platinum of Zimbabwe in the Caf Champions League preliminary round first-leg tie.
The Malawi government cordoned the areas and renovated the facility in 2017 after Fifa and local engineers condemned some stands that developed cracks, arguing they posed a risk to human lives.
So the Malawians did not ramp up facelifts at one go and stadium management has not maintained the barriers at the cordoned off areas.
A blame game has ensued among Football Association of Malawi (Fam), clubs, stadium management and security personnel on the responsibility of preventing fans from getting into the restricted areas.
Malawi’s director of sports in the Ministry of Sports, Youth and Culture Jameson Ndalama said it was sad that some fans were defying the order. He said they would call for a meeting with the stakeholders to map the way forward in ensuring the safety of the spectators at the stadium.
Fam licensing and compliance manager Casper Jangale said Malawi football and the stadium risked a Fifa ban or fines if the cordoned areas collapse and injure or kill spectators, “but the loss of lives would be the most painful penalty for the country”.
“We are sitting on a time bomb that might explode anytime soon if the security measures currently in place continue being disregarded,” he said.
The risks come two years after eight people, mainly primary school pupils, reportedly died and 48 sustained various injuries during a stampede at Bingu National Stadium in Lilongwe.
The incident occurred when the gates were reportedly being opened five hours before Bullets and Silver clashed as part of Malawi’s 53rd Independence Celebrations.
Ignoring security measures has in recent years been the main cause of deaths and injuries at football stadiums across the globe.
While Jangale said it was the responsibility of the soccer lovers themselves to avoid putting their lives at risk, and the duty of security personnel to enforce compliance of the order, the dressing rooms, technical teams’ areas and toilets at the artificial surfaced Kamuzu Stadium are in an appalling state.
So are the referees’ changing rooms, doping and first aid rooms at a venue that was once struck off the Caf list (2013).
However, a Caf inspection team is by 15 March expected to have examined Kamuzu Stadium and Bingu National Stadium ahead of the 2022 Qatar World Cup and 2021 Africa Cup of Nation (Afcon) qualifiers.
Fam general secretary Alfred Gunda said the association was confident that stadiums would make the grade.
He said: “The last time Caf inspected the Kamuzu Stadium, they noted that the artificial turf was worn out and needed to be replaced and this was done.
“The other critical issue was the state of the stadium’s stands. You will recall that they said we should further reduce the capacity of the stadium from 22 000 to the 15 000 which we did as recommended. So, we are confident that they will certify it fit to host matches.”
Fam was also asked to erect a tunnel from the dressing rooms which has since been done.
Bingu National Stadium was last inspected in 2017 and a report also pointed out several areas that needed attention.
The report noted that two exit gates used within the outer perimeter restrict final exit from the stadium and have the potential to cause a stampede.
It also recommended that additional eight exit gates of 1.15-metre in width should be installed.
Apart from structural recommendations, the stadium’s permanent advertising boards were another impediment to having international matches as they infringed on exclusivity of football events organisers such as Caf and its sponsors Total.
But Gunda said he hoped that Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture had worked on the areas that Caf and Fifa raised.
“They (ministry) have the reports from the inspectors and we are hoping that by the time the inspectors come, they would have rectified them,” he said.
The inspection comes at a time when their National Football Referees Association described Malawi stadiums as not fit to host matches.