Harare, Zimbabwe – The Warriors’ bottom-placed finish in their group and an early exit from the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) hardly came as a surprise for those who had been following the team’s run-up to the tournament.
After a 2-2 draw with fellow Group B strugglers Algeria, who were also eliminated at the group stage, Zimbabwe were outclassed and outmuscled by Senegal (2-0) and Tunisia (4-2).
Energy sapped by endless feuds with the national federation, the players looked timid and intimidated by the opposition. The results were evident on the field.
The players had gone on strike days before the tournament, an impasse which resulted in the team spurning the dinner attended by the country’s acting president. They also refused to travel to Cameroon the following morning for a friendly match en route to the tournament.
The players had initially demanded to be moved out of their camp at the national association’s training centre just outside the capital, Harare. According to the players, the training centre, built using FIFA funds, was substandard.
Following that was a strike over allowance and bonus figures for AFCON, as well as the payment method. Incensed by the players’ action, ZIFA, the Zimbabwean federation, accused the team of “embarrassing the nation through their conduct”.
ZIFA said the team had demanded, on top of a daily allowance of $500, an appearance fee of $5,000 for each player and $6,000 winning bonus for each group match. In the event of progress, the 23-man squad wanted to share $475,000 in bonuses.
ZIFA also claimed the players wanted the cash to be carried to Gabon, where the tournament is taking place. But the association said that was “in violation of the exchange control regulations and impossible, considering the current cash shortages in the country”.
The players also demanded a “qualifying bonus” of $250,000 before travelling to Gabon.
They received widespread sympathy, but in some quarters, they were branded “mercenaries” in a country grappling with cash shortages and long-standing economic problems.
However, players speaking anonymously, fearing victimisation, said the mistrust they harbour towards the association was due to previous promises that went unfulfilled.
“There is fear in the squad that we could get little or nothing at all, therefore we’ve resorted to this type of bargaining,” said one of the players before departing for the tournament.
Another player said the squad had enough of being ‘treated like amateurs” by the association.
“We are tired of the kind of treatment we get whenever we honour the call-up for national duty,” he said.
“We are treated like amateurs all the time. ZIFA never delivers. This time, we decided we will only play after getting paid. If we wait for the tournament to finish, we know everyone will forget about us. Call us names, if you want, but there is history to it. We’ve been here before.”
ZIFA, however, denied any “mistrust”, its spokesman telling Al Jazeera the federation has “a very cordial relationship with the players”.
An agreement was reached and the team travelled to Cameroon.
But the whole lead-up to a major sporting event reeked of preparations far from ideal. The dismal showing on the field followed the altercations off it and concluded in an early exit.
And then, just a few hours before the team landed back home, the Zimbabwe’s sport minister disclosed the players had staged a strike before their match against Senegal, demanding a bonus to be paid for the 2-2 draw with Algeria.
Makhosini Hlongwane, the sport minister, was with the team in Gabon and told the country’s parliament on Wednesday that the players agreed to take to the field for the match against Senegal after being guaranteed a $3,000 bonus for the opening game.
“After the draw, the players insisted being paid for the game, otherwise they wouldn’t turn up against Senegal,” Hlongwane said.
“Imagine a team refusing to play at the Africa Cup of Nations. It would’ve been embarrassing for the nation. I can’t imagine anything more demeaning for a country. In the end, ZIFA had to pay.”
Throughout negotiations, the ZIFA president, Phillip Chiyangwa, came under heavy attack for mishandling his federation and allowing the dispute interfere with preparations.
But Chiyangwa has refused to accept blame in the aftermath of the Warriors’ exit, while, at the same time, not directing any at the team.
“I thought we did well under the circumstances. Who doesn’t know the challenges our country is facing,” Chiyangwa told Al Jazeera.
“Against that very background, the Warriors did not humiliate us. As for ZIFA, what more was there for us to do? The economy is in the state it is. Every facet of Zimbabwean life has been affected. Football alone cannot perform wonders in the circumstances.”
Strikes and demands are not new in Zimbabwe football. The beginning of the qualification campaign for the tournament was also marred by a player strike that threatened the team’s participation.
It was a collective action that resulted in the team travelling by road for their opening qualifier against Malawi, a taxing trip of about 598km.
Will heads roll?
The road trip between Harare and Malawi’s capital, Blantyre, became the only remaining option after Zimbabwe’s players refused to board a flight the previous day because of a dispute with the federation over unpaid bonuses and allowances.
That night in June 2015, irate Zimbabwean fans cursed the national association and cranked up the clamour for heads to roll.
Incredibly, Zimbabwe won that game 2-1, setting themselves up for qualification for the first time in a decade.
The 10 years the team spent away from the biggest football tournament of the continent was marked by turmoil and strife brought about by a myriad of problems including, but not limited to, financial instability, maladministration and bitter power struggles.
The national team bore the heaviest brunt of that.
Yet, qualification was by no means sign that Zimbabwe was completely out of the woods. The team’s showing before and during AFCON remained glaring proof of that.