Six months ago the Zimbabwe national soccer team was one of the least respected sides. At most it only attracted 10 000 fans in the 60 000-seat National Sports Stadium.
Clubs like Harare’s Dynamos, the most popular team in the country, and Bulawayo’s Highlanders, which ranks second, attracted between 30 000 and 40 000 fans at their league and cup games.
Most fans, therefore, only went to watch the national team because of their club players in the side. When the national team was beaten there were complaints of bias by the selectors who were accused of favouring certain clubs.
All this has now changed. The National Sports Stadium is filled to capacity when the national team is playing. All its games are now being screened live on television. The team has now even been dubbed “The Dream Team”.
Sponsorship for national team players and for matches to be broadcast live from wherever the team is playing is pouring in.
Soccer now seems to have brought more pride to the nation in six months than politics did in 13 years because it is now attracting members of the white community.
The public-shy white community has come out of its closet where for the past 13 years it lived almost like a separate entity enjoying private braais in the comfort of their spacious suburban homes complete with swimming pools, jacuzzis, tennis courts and stables.
While there was a sizeable number of white soccer enthusiasts prior to independence, and several soccer teams, the most popular being Callies Football Club, they simply disappeared at independence.
Whites then only seemed to be interested in exclusive sports like cricket, golf, hockey and rugby which most blacks were not interested in, or were not privileged to.
The few whites who still associated with soccer switched to administrative roles like refereeing, coaching or managing.
Mick Poole, for example, became a very successful coach and at one time even coached the national team but he had few successes.
Frank Valdermarca became one of the country’s leading referees and was even promoted to become a FIFA referee before retiring to soccer administration. He became one of the longest serving soccer administrators as treasurer of the often troubled Zimbabwe Football Association (ZIFA).
Even President Robert Mugabe’s much hailed policy of reconciliation failed to bring the whites out of their closets. Instead of joining the black majority they built more and more exclusive clubs.
They pulled their children out of formerly whites-only schools to private ones that most blacks could not afford. They abandoned formerly posh hospitals like Parirenyatwa (Andrew Fleming) to establish posher ones like Avenues Clinic. Some even named their residences “Little England”.
Their disappearance from the public arena might not have had anything to do with racism or segregation. It might have been that the whites were simply pushed out of the periphery because politicians wanted to use any public gathering as a political platform at which whites were often castigated for being privileged and therefore responsible for the poverty the black majority was suffering.
To most whites, the National Sports Stadium was just another “white elephant”. Some only went there once in a blue moon to watch international musicians like Bruce Springsteen and Tracy Chapman when they came to perform for the Human Rights Concert.
But when Zimbabwe played its return match against Angola at the National Sports Stadium on January 31 this year, there were so many whites at the stadium that one would have thought it was an invitation English side playing an international team. The number of whites at the game was certainly greater than the two percent they now constitute nationally.
What astounded many was the patriotic attitude of the whites. They were, as some people said, more Zimbabwean than their black counterparts. They had scarves, caps, and flags with the national colours.
When the stadium rose to sing the national anthem, they were at the forefront. During the game, they were even better cheerleaders.
The event marked what most people believe is the beginning of change in the country’s race relations. Ironically, it was sport, which most people argue should never be mixed with politics, that brought this about.
The success of the Zimbabwe national soccer team which began with their 4-1 hammering of the South African national team in August last year, followed by victories over Egypt, Angola, Mauritius and Togo has brought the country closer together, a thing that politics has failed to do.
The team’s success has brought pride to the nation which has nothing much else to celebrate because of the current hardships brought about by the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme and last year’s devastating drought.
Even politicians who had stopped coming to watch soccer because of the numerous defeats are flocking back to associate themselves with the team’s success and most are paying to watch the game. ZIFA says the number of people buying VIP tickets has increased almost 20-fold.
All this is because of the national team’s success. The major worry now is what will happen once the team starts losing? Will there be a thawing of relations once again or has soccer brought a lasting change in attitudes? Another worry is that if the team continues to win will politicians not begin meddling again?