Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor
MILLIONS of dollars from the thriving mobile phone industry are powering football across Southern Africa — transforming clubs from Cape Town to Kitwe, from Blantyre to Beira and from Maseru to Windhoek — into powerful institutions now making their presence felt in the CAF Champions League and Confederation Cup.
However, while others are feasting on rich proceeds from this industry, the Zimbabwean football family appears to be the only one missing from this dinner table, in a region whose clubs are now standing toe-to-toe with the continent’s traditional heavyweights.
The mobile phone industry bankrolls the league championships of Zambia (FAZ/MTN Super Division); Malawi (TNM Malawi Premiership), Swaziland (MTN Swazi Premiership), Lesotho (Econet Lesotho Premiership), Mozambique (MCel League Mozambique Football) and they were the last sponsors to fund the Namibian top-flight league (MTC Namibia Premiership) before it went into limbo.
While the industry does not bankroll the South African Premiership, which is sponsored by banking giant ABSA, it has a huge presence in the game in the top-flight league of that country where Vodacom have been pumping R1 billion packages into Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates and MTN sponsor Bloemfontein Celtic and the MTN8 knockout tournament, while Telkom sponsor the Knockout Cup.
Money from this industry has been helping transform the game in the region and Zambian clubs now plunge into the CAF Champions League driven by grand expectations they can win the tournament after Zesco United reached the semi-finals of the tournament two years ago, only to fall at the hands of eventual champions Mamelodi Sundowns.
Zambia and South Africa have four slots each — two in the CAF Champions League and two in the CAF Confederation Cup — because of the strong performance of their clubs in the two inter-club tournaments in recent years.
While there is always an expectation for Zambian and South African clubs to do well when it comes to football, it’s the miracle that has been happening in Swaziland, thanks to the investment by the mobile phone industry into the game there, which has been catching the eye.
Mbabane Swallows flexed their muscles last year with a dream run in the CAF Confederation Cup where they ousted Orapa United of Botswana 4-2 on aggregate in the preliminary round, thrashed Azam of Tanzania 3-1 on aggregate in the first round and eliminated AC Leopards of Congo-Brazzaville in the play-off round to qualify for the group stages.
A 0-1 away defeat at the hands of Tunisian giants CS Sfaxien underlined the progress they have made and they soon demonstrated it in full with a 4-2 thrashing of South Africa’s Platinum Stars before a credible goalless draw against MC Alger of Algeria.
They gave as much as they got in a 1-2 defeat to MC Algeria in Algiers, where Dynamos’ Champions League adventure ended with a 0-3 defeat six years ago, before a 2-2 draw away to Platinum Stars, in a game in which they even led 2-0 before Malawian import Robert Ngámbi scored two late goals, demonstrated their progress.
While MTN have been bankrolling the Zambian Super Division, where a number of Zimbabwean players — including internationals Partson Jaure and Tatenda Mukuruva — have found a new base, another giant in the mobile phone industry, Vodafone, have been making in-roads into the game there. And recently they refurbished the Woodlands Stadium in Lusaka while also sponsoring top-flight club City of Lusaka.
“We are genuinely committed to the growth of Zambian football. It is exciting to see more corporates invest in the sport that unites us all,” Lars Stork, the Vodafone Zambia chief executive said during the unveiling of their marriage with City of Lusaka last year.
“This is more than a marketing exercise for us, it goes to the very core of our business — ensuring we make a meaningful impact in the communities in which we operate. We will continue to support the City of Lusaka and reaffirm our commitment to them as their official sponsor.”
In Malawi, the mobile phone industry is oiling the domestic Premiership with Telekom Networks Malawi being the sponsors of the league while Airtel have also come in big in recent years.
And, after years of not having representatives in the CAF inter-club competitions, because clubs in Malawi felt the adventure was too expensive for their budgets, the country will have a team in the Champions League this year with Mighty Wanderers taking part.
In Botswana, beMobile, whose parent company are the Botswana Telecommunications Corporation, and who have a subscriber base of about 100 000 clients, bankroll the top-flight league while Orange sponsor the Orange Kabelano Charity Cup and Mascom sponsor the Mascom Top 8.
After an eight-year break, when Vodacom took over the sponsorship of the Lesotho Premiership, Econet announced their return as the main sponsor of the league in September last year. In the past 16 years, the Lesotho’s Premier League has been sponsored by telecommunications companies with Econet, through their Buddie product, having a second dance with the league, while Vodacom have also had a flirtation with the league. However, the same cannot be said about the game in this country.
Despite the huge market for the industry here, which has seen many of the companies declaring huge profits, their relationship with the national game remains a tricky one, while everyone across the region is feasting from this thriving industry.
Econet once entered into a five-year deal to sponsor the domestic Premiership, but cancelled the agreement after just one year amid concerns at the company that NetOne had entered into a separate deal to sponsor CAPS United.
Since then, repeated efforts by successive PSL leaders to try and lure the country’s dominant mobile phone company back into their fold have failed. This week, Econet Media’s Kwesé TV revealed they were not bidding for the domestic Premier Soccer League television rights, sparking an intense debate on an interactive platform for leading African football writers, administrators and commentators.
NetOne are believed to have agreed a deal to sponsor the country’s Big Three clubs — Dynamos, Highlanders and CAPS United — but the deal has been shrouded in secrecy although images of the teams’ players wearing OneFusion T-shirts during their pre-season preparations appear to confirm an agreement has been thrashed out.