I’ve been watching football at every level since I was a small boy. For my first top flight game my father took me and my younger brother to see Leicester City beat Aston Villa by five goals to nil. I was hooked and from then on watched as many live games as I could, all over the UK. And once I had children, they went with us as well. It was not always entertaining and thrilling; in fact sometimes it was punishment, especially if it was a bitter, freezing day… and of course if my team lost, but it was always a joyful occasion. I also played for a few years at a very basic level, until an ankle injury ended what could have been a promising career…If I would have had any talent, that is. When my son was old enough he joined a team and played every Sunday and I stood on the touchline to watch him, cheering him on for many years in all weathers.
So, it was inevitable that when I began to visit Zimbabwe on a regularly basis, I would want to watch a match, to witness and experience the exuberance of African football. I discussed this with partner Mercy, who isn’t too enamoured with football, although I had once manage to drag her along to a friendly match between Brazil (the then world champions) and Jamaica. However, her brother Hope is a football fanatic and didn’t need much persuading to confirm that he would accompany me to the next Zimbabwean Premiere Soccer league match in Harare.
Like many Zimbabweans he follows the English Premier League and supports Manchester United; whom I call Moneybags United, as I feel the super rich clubs have an unfair advantage over the other teams. All over Harare I had seen Kombi’s decorated in various club colours and seen guys and girls wearing the shirts of the usual suspects: Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal, but have not often seen too many people wearing the shirts of their local teams. Hope had several Moneybags United shirts, but not one for the local team he follows; CAPS United – Makepekepe” the Green Machine.
As it happened, the next game in town was to be the following weekend between CAPS United and FC Platinum: both renowned teams who have been champions in the recent past. I looked forward to it all week and was genuinely excited as we pulled into the car park at the National Sports Stadium. We parked and walked towards the stadium along with countless others, many adorned in green and white. As it turned out FC Platinum also play in green, so everywhere was a sea of green.
Outside the ground, groups of fans had gathered to chat, drink and eat. As we walked around the smell of cooking meat wafted over from the several Braais tempting the passing throng. And yes, we too indulged. We walked around to the far side of the stadium and purchased a couple of cold beers and joined a short queue to enter. Surprisingly it only cost a few dollars to get in, which meant money for more beer later. We made our way into the stand and found a place level with the halfway line and sat on the concrete steps to take in the scene which confronted us.
The National Sports Stadium is massive and can hold 80,000 people, and because of its size the supporters attending a game such as this, showed it to be well under capacity. The terraced steps looked sparsely populated, clusters of fans spread out in different areas. We inadvertently found ourselves close to some of the FC Platinum fans, facing across from the biggest grouping of CAPS fans. Despite the sparseness of the crowd within the stadium, there was still a colourful spectacle to see and the noise they made far exceeded what should have been scientifically possible. Prior to the game beginning and when the players finally came out on to the pitch the decibel levels were already high, but when the game kicked off it increased even further.
Most of the noise came from the main body of the CAPS fans opposite us. They shouted, sang, chanted and danced. Some shook, blew and banged instruments of one kind or another. One guy, who appeared to be the self-appointed cheer leader, orchestrated the throng. He spent most of his time facing away from the game, which he barely watched and indeed missed most of the action. Hope and I decided to join the happy throng on the other side of the ground to soak up the atmosphere by being in it. Oh, and also because the other side was shaded from the blistering sun.
We quickly walked around and took up our places within the CAPS fanatics, some of whom approached me, shook hands and made me feel welcome. A few told me that they were not used to seeing a murungu in with them. As it was, the game itself was by no means the best game I had ever seen. It was okay, but not too memorable. Fortunately, CAPS United won one nil and inevitable when the goal went in, the noise level was deafening. To me, just being there and being among the jubilant crowd was what made the occasion so special. I managed to buy a replica CAPS shirt for Ben, my son back in the UK. As I mentioned there are English Premiere club shirts all of Zimbabwe, but I can safely say that it is likely that there is only one murungu wearing a CAPS United shirt in the entire of England.
The following week, I watched a local game in a high density area just outside of Harare. A bunch of young men playing in a competitive game on an uneven, dust covered, hard surface pitch on wasteland with no facilities in evidence. I was roasting hot just watching them. They were fit and some displayed impressive skills: there is definitely untapped talent out there. They were playing for the love of the game; the same reason that I was there watching them. It was a world away from the professional world where the top players are reputed to earn millions of dollars a year for doing exactly the same as these lads…merely kicking a ball around.