IT was Pele who called it “the beautiful game” and for years now football has stood out as the world’s number one sporting code.
It has produced some of the globe’s finest stars, from Pele himself, a three-time World Cup winner, to Diego Maradona, the genius from Argentina.
Every country has its own football hero and here in Zimbabwe we generate a lot of pride in that Peter Ndlovu is one of us.
The Flying Elephant holds the honour of being the first African footballer to feature in the English Premiership, opening the gates for the likes of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane.
He was also a dependable servant and leader of our Warriors, guiding them to their first AFCON finals in Tunisia in 2004 where he led from the front by scoring three goals.
Much of football’s appeal lies in its simplicity, just 11 players aside, a ball, three match officials and both teams just trying to outscore each other.
It also gives even its weakest nations the opportunity to dream of playing at the World Cup and, in our case, we came within just one win, during the ’94 World Cup qualifiers, of booking our place at the global showcase.
Our Mighty Warriors transformed themselves into sweethearts of the continent when they managed to win one of the two tickets reserved for Africa, to feature at the 2016 Olympic Games.
Their stunning elimination of giants Cameroon in the final qualifier was the stuff dreams are made of and cleared the path for them to take on some of the best teams in the world, in Brazil.
But, football, without the fans, loses a big part of its soul.
It loses its glitter, the sights and sounds in the stands have always provided the game with the soundtrack which it needs, which its stars need, to excel on the football fields.
It’s a special relationship and when the stadiums are packed to capacity, there is no better sight in world sport than what football provides.
We all watched when Covid-19 struck and teams were forced to play in empty stadiums that the game was not the same and that a big part of what makes it beautiful was missing.
And, when the fans started returning to the stadiums, we began to see the full package which this special game provides.
Last week, the Government, through the Sports and Recreation Commission, decided the time has come for life to be brought back to our national game, with a limited number of fans being allowed into our stadiums.
For a start, 2 000 fully vaccinated fans will from today be allowed to watch the Chibuku Super Cup when the quarter-finals get underway at Baobab Stadium in Ngezi.
Four matches will be played today, with hosts Ngezi Platinum Stars getting the ball rolling at 11am in the first quarter-final.
Then at 3pm, a heavyweight showdown between Highlanders and FC Platinum will explode into life at the same stadium.
Tomorrow, two other matches are set to be played, with Cranborne Bullets taking on knock-out tournament specialists, Harare City, before Dynamos and Black Rhinos clash later in the afternoon.
The last time local fans were allowed to watch domestic football was in February last year, when Highlanders and FC Platinum clashed in the Challenge Cup showdown.
Since then, our stadiums have been empty shells, without fans in the terraces, during the earlier rounds of the Chibuku Super Cup.
The return of fans to football grounds should have been something for all of us to celebrate because it shows that, gradually, our national game, in particular, and our beloved country in general, is returning to normalcy.
We thank the Government for its exemplary leadership role in the way it managed the tricky, and dangerous situation, brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, instead of the expected celebrations which should have been triggered by the Government’s decision to allow fans back into our stadiums, we have seen disappointment, especially among the fans.
The disappointment has largely been triggered by the outrageous decision by the Premier Soccer League leadership to charge fans US$50 for the VVIP tickets and US$20 for the cheapest tickets to watch this weekend’s matches.
The gate charges are just too high and cannot be justified in whatever way,by the top-flight league’s leaders, especially against a background where the majority of our football fans are just poor people.
It’s like the PSL have turned their back on the very people who have been the lifeblood of the game, men and women whose loyalty cannot be questioned and who have kept supporting domestic football even as the standards on the fields went down.
It’s an open secret that the quality of the domestic Premiership has gone down with any decent footballer who emerges on the scene being taken away by clubs in South Africa, Zambia and Tanzania.
When Ishmail Wadi scored a number of goals in his first few games for CAPS United, we saw him being taken away by a lower league side in South Africa, where he continues to excel.
The Green Machine struggled once he had left, and they failed to qualify for the quarter-finals of the Chibuku Super Cup.
Now, even against that background, where any decent player is plucked away from our top-flight league, the PSL bosses, somehow, still feel the league is such a box office attraction those who want to watch its matches have to pay as much as US$50.
It’s sad that, instead of the celebrations we expected, we have seen negative reports, as fans cry foul, which does not help the sponsors, Delta Beverages, who find their name being dragged into all this negativity.
It’s clear that PSL leaders have scored an own goal and, given fans have been waiting for about two years, for this golden chance, it feels like this is an insult to the supporters.