Innocent Kurira, Sports Reporter
MATCH days have never been gloomier since the restart of local football with the Chibuku Super Cup.
Football without fans anywhere in the world is just a very ugly sensation, and the Chibuku Super Cup has borne testimony to this.
In fact, without fans, the beautiful game completely loses its very soul.
Although technique, tactics and athleticism were on display in some matches in the midst of rustiness caused by the Covid-19 enforced shutdown in April last year, the emotion was absent. All matches resembled training sessions with no fans to transform the stadia into arenas of emotions that inspire the players one way of the other. It is now evident that fans lend football and sport emotional resonance with their roars when a goal is scored or missed, groans of frustration and applause of appreciation.
Ask every player and they will tell you this is what they have been missing since returning to the field of play. The last local match played without any crowd restrictions was on March 14, 2020, pitting Premier Soccer league champions FC Platinum and Chibuku Super Cup winners Highlanders in the Castle Challenge Cup at Barbourfields Stadium. FC Platinum comfortably won that game 2-0.
But when the Sports and Recreation Commission permitted topflight football to resume in June, and the PSL elected to remodel the Chibuku Super Cup into a tournament involving all 18 PSL teams, the feeling was different for players and their technical staff.
Action was behind closed doors before empty seats everywhere and there was an eerie silence, occasionally punctuated by shouts from players and coaches or the thud of the boot on the ball. Teams with few supporters were somehow able to adapt more successfully than the traditional giants like Highlanders, Dynamos and Caps United, who depend on the crowds for inspiration.
For sports reporters, covering and watching the matches has been both a privilege and a lonely 90 minutes inside the stadium.
Suddenly things that have previously been taken for granted like pre-match rituals involving the fans were missing.
The beauty of a football match has never been the first whistle from the referee, but the sound of a vuvuzela on the morning of match day, the Lovemore Majiavana songs, the wilding by kombi drivers and touts and the melee outside the stadium.
As much as all this is annoying to non-football lovers, the absence of fans at match venues has proved that all this is a typical package of a match day. Match day at Barbourfields Stadium meant roaring business for women cooking and selling meals next to the shops across the road from the stadium.
For some fans, it was also a ritual to have lunch from the open air “kitchen” before trooping into the stadium.
Besides the passion, bigger clubs’ traditional income streams were wiped out, with no gate takings to depend on for paying bonuses and one biggest dependent Highlanders fell into difficulties, and failed to pay players.
Bosso were only rescued by the timeous intervention of energy giant Sakunda Holdings, who announced a huge sponsorship deal that will give the Bulawayo giants peace of mind for the next three seasons. From next weekend, all stadia will welcome 2 000 fans to watch the remaining Cchibuku Super Cup matches.
The presence of fans is expected to impact on the performances of players, as they will have to up their game to please the entertainment starved limited crowd.
The open kitchen outside Barbourfields Stadium will also welcome back the fans and so will those that sell clubs’ merchandise to spectators. For them, a revenue stream that had dried up for the past 19 months has been unlocked all because of the return of fans to the stadia.
And fortunately for fans and those that sell different wares outside stadia, the big teams are all in the Chibuku Super Cup quarter-finals next weekend when a limited number of fans will be jostling to post their images on social media bragging about being among the first to return to the country’s stadia after what had seemed like a lifetime absence.
Highlanders take on FC Platinum at Mandava Stadium in a repeat of the 2019 semi-final in which Bosso hammered the platinum miners 3-0 at Barbourfields Stadium.
This will be a perfect opportunity for the Zvishavane side to use homeground advantage and the return of its fans to exact revenge on Bosso. Bosso have been poor travellers to Zvishavane in the past, not for the lack of spectators, as they attract fans across the country at any venue they play.
Ngezi Platinum Stars date Chicken Inn at Barbourfields Stadium, while Dynamos will face Black Rhinos and Cranborne Bullets play against either Harare City or ZPC Kariba.
The past 19 months have proved that fans make football mean something and that the sport has missed its passionate supporters as much as they have missed watching the game from inside the stadia.
And as the game prepares for the return of fans next weekend, hopefully their long absence prompted sports administrators to reflect on what the role of fans in sport is and fully embrace them as important stakeholders going forward. — @innocentskizoe