Not a great trek south

Orlando Pirates striker Gilbert Mushangazhike may be the symbol of a new wave of players trekking down to South Africa in search of Absa PSL’s hundreds of millions. A free agent after a stint in China with Jiangsu Shuntian, it is safe to conclude his decision to come to South Africa was as much professional as financial.

He was certainly not short of suitors when he finished the Chinese season as top scorer—with only 15 goals. Lloyd Mutungamiri, sports editor at the Standard in Zimbabwe, suggested Mushangazhike’s decision to play in South Africa may be an attempt to revive his international career—which has been in a rut for years.

Picked for his national side, he was one of the two Zimbabweans who scored in a friendly international match in which Zimbabwe lost 2-1 to South Africa—one of South Africa’s goals was scored by James Matola, a Zimbabwean playing for Free State Stars. Matola did his adoptive homeland a favour by scoring an own goal in the game’s virtual last kick—to ensure that Zimbabwe wouldn’t come back.

“Nobody knew what he was doing there,” Mutungamiri says of Mushangazhike’s time in China. “What we saw of him were the photos he occasionally sent us.”

Because of the great wall between the Chinese league and the Zimbabwean coaching set-up, it was easy to sideline him from the national team.

Mutungamiri says he follows the South African league closely and knows of many Zimbabwean players looking out for opportunities to play in the PSL. “I have spoken to players whose ambition is to play in the league,” he says. “It’s difficult for them to break into European leagues and South Africa is the initial step into Europe.”

Luke Masomere, coach for Harare giants Caps United, also admits he follows the South African league closely—but more for its monetary lure than for its football. “I can certainly say it’s attractive to players and coaches,” he says. “If I get an offer I will come there running because of the rand and not the standard of football.” He argues that in a tournament pitting the top four teams from each country, the final would feature Zimbabwean teams. He acknowledges that South Africans are entertaining, playing a football that looks good to the eye. But that is all there is to it, says the coach, who has also coached Gaborone United, a Botswana premier league side.

Augustine Mukoka, a senior sports reporter at The Post in Zambia, points out that the PSL has been a favoured league, viewed as a yardstick for breaking into European leagues. If one makes it in South Africa, he says, one stands a better chance of making it in the European leagues, although Collins Mbesuma, a hero at Kaizer Chiefs, washed up on England’s south coast as a castaway, mocked as Portsmouth’s worst ever signing.

“I see the trend continuing,” Mukoka says. “Some players who may not want to play in Europe’s third-tier leagues like Denmark and Switzerland may choose to play in the South African league while waiting to break into the more competitive and lucrative leagues in Western Europe.”

He says the levels of investment coming into the PSL put it “slightly above” leagues in Zimbabwe and Zambia. As a result, they are able to attract players who make it to national teams.

Bobby Samaria, coach for Namibia’s under-20 team, says the money will “definitely be a carrot”. He calls for caution, urging the league to guard against mediocre players from the region who may stifle local talent. “They must have represented their teams at under-23 or senior level,” says the coach whose former charges in the youth team—Wycliff Kambonde and Lazarus Kamimbi—now play for Jomo Cosmos.

His under-20 side lost 2-1 to South Africa last weekend, but he is not dishearted as he had only five players from last year’s team. His current side features a 16-year-old, Imberth Isaach, who is due for trials with the University of Pretoria team.

The great trek south in search of rands has the potential to harm the local game. There are lessons to be learned from other established leagues that shone at club football but fared badly at international level.

England are the typical example of how money can improve the local club game at the expense of the international effort. The English have four of the last eight clubs in the European Champions League—Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool—yet their national team could not qualify for the Euro 2008.

Percy Zvomuya

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