THERE HAVE BEEN SOME GOOD TIMES AND SOME BAD TIMES, BUT THAT’S THE WAY IT IS
WHETHER by design, or by default, it had to be the year this Brazilian shanty town on the shores of the Atlantic, welcomed the birth of a boy who, with the passage of time, would become the world’s most expensive football player. When Neymar da Silva Santos Junior was born in the poorest neighbourhood of Magida Cruzes, a slum in Sao Paulo, he was introduced into a world of grinding poverty so much that his father says their part of town was where this community ‘‘threw their garbage.’’
Life was so tough and just to try and make ends meet, Neymar’s father had to do three jobs a day but that wasn’t even enough and the entire family was driven to find refugee in his grand parents’ house where they were all squeezed into one room.
But from such humble settings, a community which time had seemingly forgotten and left behind to feed on crumbs, emerged a footballer with immense talent he would – 25 years after his birth – shake the world with his outrageous record-breaking $263 million transfer from Barcelona to French side PSG where now gets $34 million a year after taxes.
A boy who went to one of the worst schools in Brazil, if not in the entire world, was this year bought for a transfer fee enough to pay the tuition fees for 1 004 students to complete their four-year degree programmes at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the best universities in the world, where students pay around $65,000 a year in tuition fees and living costs.
Or the tuition, room and boarding fees of 4 157 students at Harvard or educate 8.4 million kids in India for a whole year.
A boy who grew up in a shanty town, and whose family was even forced to squeeze into one room when they moved to his grandparents’ house, was now signed for an outrageous fee that could buy 137 properties London’s most expensive area of Kensington.
Ironically, a person who somehow escaped death as a four-month toddler when he was thrown out of a run-down car his family was travelling in had now been signed for a world-record fee enough to buy a Boeing Dreamliner passenger plane.
Or pay the costs of the US military, who have a proposed 2018 budget of $639.1bn, for about three hours, cover about 0.013 percent of the money lost every year to corruption, buy a puppy for every resident of Columbus, Ohio, in the United States and pay off most of the national debt of Seychelles.
The transfer fee could even run a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey, with about 14 000 inhabitants, for 11 years.
Try to convince me that God isn’t great and I will tell you that you will be fighting a losing battle, from the very start, because these are some of the miracles, happening in our time which, for one reason or another because of our obsession with denial, we choose to rather ignore.
It also had to be the year Sadio Mane was born, in the humble settings of Sedhiou, a small remote town in the south-western part of Senegal with a population of about 24 200 people, situated on the shores of the Casamance River, where poverty stalked him so much he played football in torn shorts.
At 15, he convinced himself to make the 300km trip to Dakar, where he didn’t have any relative and was taken in by a family he didn’t know, to try his luck in football – the beginning of a journey that would eventually see him becoming Africa’s most expensive footballer when Liverpool signed him.
It also had to be the year Phillipe Coutinho, Mohamed Salah, Stephan El Shaarawy, David Alaba and Mario Gotze, who scored the goal that won Germany the World Cup at the Maracana in Brazil three years ago, were also born.
It had to be the year the Warriors revived their romance with their fans, after about half-a-dozen years in which their appeal had sunk to rock bottom and, like the Bafana Bafana of today, didn’t provoke interest among their supporters for them to come and watch the team represent their nation.
On August 16, 1992, the foundation of the Dream Team and its love affair with the people of this country was built when the Warriors – inspired by the brilliance of a Peter Ndlovu still to cut his romance with teenage hood – crushed Bafana Bafana 4-1 at the National Sports Stadium in an AFCON qualifier before 51 000 fans.
King Peter, slaloming past the dazzled Bafana Bafana defence – Steve Khompela and company – his artistry casting a sell over them as he performed his magical dance of absolute brilliance, the kind of which only the best of the ballerina dancers are capable of, and then having the presence of mind to finish it off with a beauty of a goal to send the stadium into a frenzy.
It’s on iconic moments like these that legends are made and on that fine summer August afternoon in 1992, exactly 25 years ago, a teenage footballer blessed with an incredible talent that had taken him out of Makokoba and into Coventry and who, at the ages of 17 and 18, had been crowned the best player in the domestic Premiership, had now completed his graduation into a Warriors superstar.
Somehow, whether by design or default, this had to happen in 1992.
And that Dream Team, which routinely used to lure 60 000 fans to its home matches at the National Sports Stadium, took no prisoners as it marched in the jungles of African football, saying a number of continental heavyweights like the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon and the Pharaohs of Egypt – along the way – and coming within just 90 minutes of reaching the 1994 World Cup finals.
A collection of players who went for 10 matches, in both the World Cup/Nations Cup qualifiers, without losing a game for their country, winning six times and drawing four, during a purple patch in which their bond with their fans grew with each passing game and their reputation around the continent, as real and fierce Warriors, was established.
Somehow, whether by design or default, this all had to start in 1992.
THE ENGLISH PREMIERSHIP REVOLUTION AND HOW IT CHANGED THE WORLD
Just three days after his National Sports Stadium masterclass, King Peter plunged into the history books of world football when he became the first African footballer to play in the revamped English Premiership in the first weeks of a revolution that would transform this league from a top-flight entity into the multi-billion dollar industry that it has become today.
Ravaged by falling attendance figures, blighted by chaos and hooliganism and stalked by tragedy on the stands and a sickening drinking culture among its stars, and having just emerged from a five-year ban from European football because of the wayward behaviour of its hooligans, the English top-flight was a league in turmoil.
Even the wages of its professional footballers were not something to write home about because in 1982 – by the time the likes of Bruce Grobbelaar and company were making their bow – the average weekly pay for the players in the English top-flight league was just £750 per week.
By 1991, when King Peter joined Coventry City, the average weekly pay for the footballers in English top-flight league had risen to about £1 600.
However, this all changed with the arrival of the Premiership revolution as tens of millions started flowing into the league and today a club like Manchester United can even afford to pay Paul Pogba a staggering £290 000 a week while the league has transformed itself into the world’s most-watched football league viewed in over 212 territories, broadcast to over 643 million homes and watched by over 4.7 billion people.
Whether by design, or default, the revolution that now sees the English Premiership paying the world’s best players millions of dollars per week had to start in 1992.
And it has also changed the world of football in that it applied a lot of pressure on the other major leagues to also start paying their stars such huge sums of money and the best footballers around the globe are now some of the best paid athletes in the world.
Talk about football today and if that conversation doesn’t include Barcelona – whether you are discussing the purity of this game on the field, the financial muscle of the game’s heavyweight clubs, success, global support or the influence clubs have had in the revolution of this game – it would not be complete.
Barca, the team whose tiki-taka provided a beauty to this game and influenced a generation of some of the finest coaches, led by Pep Guardiola, who are leading the quest for perfection in this game, has become a very fashionable heavyweight club in the world.
But it’s hard to imagine, for the later day recruits to the Barca Brigade, that this club did not win the European Cup, which today is known as the UEFA Champions League, until they triumphed at Wembley in 1992 after beating Italian side Sampdoria 1-0 in the final.
By then, Barca had been around for 93 years and had all along lived in the shadows of their major Spanish rivals Real Madrid, who had perfected the art of winning titles in Europe, and not even the acquisition of such players like the great Diego Maradona, could inspire the Catalan giants to European success.
‘‘There was a time when Barcelona fans did not expect success. To wallow in pessimism was the accepted norm. Trophies? Titles? They were for others, usually the reserve of the grandiose club of the capital, Real Madrid,’’ CNN, in their feature article dubbed – The Game That Changed Football – argued on March 19, this year.
‘‘The European Cup was as elusive as the unicorn: talked about, looked at with wonder, pictured with others but never seen in this Catalonian city by the Mediterranean sea.
‘‘A club like Barcelona, the nihilistic fans would say, would never reach the zenith of European club football. There was no bombast, no peacocking, just fatalism.
‘‘The iron-handed years of General Francisco Franco, whose dictatorial regime had crushed Catalonia’s earlier limited autonomy, had ruined the spirit.
‘‘Barcelona had been able to sign football greats such as Johan Cruyff and Diego Maradona, but two European Cup finals – in 1961 and 1986 – had ended in defeat and between 1961 and 1990, the club won just two league titles in Spain’s top flight, finishing runners up 13 times.
‘‘But that all changed on May 20, 1992.
‘‘That was the day Barcelona won its first European Cup. That was the day the club, its city, and football was transformed.’’
Of course, 1992 was also the year FIFA decided, after the negative football displayed at Euro 1992, that back passes to the goalkeeper – from that year onwards – would be outlawed to try and stop teams from just keeping the ball in their area in a game that is at its very best when its attacking instincts are in full display.
The final back pass in English football that year, of course, had a Zimbabwean flavour after Steve Nicol passed the ball back to his goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar in the 1992 FA Cup final in the final moments of that game with the Jungleman holding onto the ball on his chest, as if to send a message about how the game would soon all this, now that the practice was being outlawed.
EVEN HERE IN ZIMBABWEAN FOOTBALL, 1992 BROUGHT A WIND OF CHANGE
Zimbabwe ensured it would not be left behind by the winds of change that were blowing across world football in 1992 and Chris Sibanda, Morrison Sifelani, Victor Zvobgo and Wieslaw Grabowski came together to moot the idea of forming the Premiership and weaning the top-flight clubs from the direct control of ZIFA.
The Association had run the old Super League for a long time but despite the threats of being kicked out of a game by a ZIFA leadership that did not want to lose control over the country’s biggest clubs, Sibanda and his crew refused to be intimidated and dug into the trenches as they laid down the foundation for the Premiership as we know it today.
That was around the time, and year, I arrived on the Sports Desk of this newspaper as its latest fresh-faced recruit from the Journalism School of the Harare Polytechnic back in the days when this institution attracted students from South Africa, Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and across Southern Africa.
Back in the days when homesickness meant every other weekend I would board the bus at Mbare Musika for a trip back to Chakari and I would pay $4.10 cents on the Tauya Coach Services bus for the trip from Harare to Chegutu and then another 60 cents on the Rutendo bus for the last leg of the trip back home.
When, on every trip back home, I would ensure I had $20 – $10 for my eldest sister and another $10 for the sister who comes just before me – and just three days after my return to the capital, they would both write me letters to thank me for being such a generous brother and wish me all the best in my new career.
Back in the days when the lure of watching my hometown club Falcon Gold, even though they were just a Division Two side, I would ensure I followed them, on the days they were playing their away games on Saturday, which is an off-day at The Herald, to support them.
And, given the opposition didn’t know me back then as they know me now, I would join the band of our team’s supporters, sing with them, swear at the referees with them if I felt they were giving us a raw deal, celebrate with them when we scored or won and then ride on their team bus, if it passed through Harare, where I would drop off to go home.
I remember how reaching the capital, for the imminent divorce from my hometown crew, used to pain my heart endlessly and, at times, as I dropped off the bus and waved goodbye to the gang, tears would drop down my cheeks.
That was in 1992 and I will be lying to you if I tell you that, back then, I expected to still be in this city today – 25 years down the line – and not having fled back to home sweet home, let alone still working for this very same newspaper and on the same Sports Desk, I would be lying.
But here I am, the guy who arrived on this Sports Desk in 1992 straight from my humble hometown of Chakari, working for the same employer, on the same desk, for half-a-century, something my colleagues celebrated on Wednesday when my association with this newspaper clocked exactly 25 years.
Ten years ago, the City Press newspaper of South Africa offered me this same job, and we agreed terms, but – at the very last-minute – I decided to stick around, to be closer to my extended family in Chakari, something telling me this newspaper was my home.
There have been some good times, some bad times, some great times and some horrible times, but I have no regrets because I have put my fate in the Hand of the Lord.
I have made mistakes, like every human being, I have created friends and enemies alike, which is normal in this adventure, but that is the way life and life will always be.
Somehow, whether by design or default, my association with this newspaper had to come in the year world football, and domestic football, changed forever.
Here’s, with God’s grace, to another 25 years.
To God Be The Glory
Come on Warriors!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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