Why has the number of Zimbabwean players in the South African PSL gone down?

There was a time when almost every South African Premier Soccer League team had a Zimbabwean player within their ranks.

Zimbabwean players were showered with praise for adding ‘glamour’ to the league since it’s inception in 1996.

In the 2017/18 season, a total of 27 Zimbabwean players were in the South African top-flight.

The following season, the 2018/19, recorded the highest ever number of Zimbabwean stars in the league—28.

The 2019/20 campaign had 27, whilst the 2020/21 had 18.

19 players represented Zimbabwe in the 2021/22 season.

In all cases, Zimbabwe had the biggest share of the foreign quota in the South African top-division.

Things have drastically changed though, only 10 Zimbabwean players were registered for the 2022/23 season —Khama Billiat (Kaizer Chiefs), Ronald Pfumbidzai (Chippa United), Divine Lunga (Mamelodi Sundows- loaned to Golden Arrows), Knox Mutizwa (Golden Arrows), Onismor Bhasera and George Chigova (SuperSport United), Washington Arubi (Marumo Gallants), Tawanda Macheke (Maritzburg United) and Butholezwe Ncube (AmaZulu).

Top South African football agent Mike Ngobeni of M Sport Management, who used to manage Billiat and orchestrated the diminutive winger’s move from Mamelodi Sundowns to Kaizer Chiefs in 2018, said Zimbabwe is lagging behind in the development of youngsters and that explains the declining Zimbabwean quota in the DStv Premiership.

“When it comes to Zimbabwe, there is nothing there which you can offer to the South African market. Look at how many Congolese players were brought to the South African market this season. I’m one of the agents who brought Congolese players to the market,” Ngobeni told Soccer24.

“In Zimbabwe, there is nothing much you can offer to the market because remember there was no football for sometime, then the game returned and it was stopped again because ZIFA is banned, the clubs follow that,” he added.

Ngobeni said as much as the Zimbabwean league is in full swing, South African clubs are usually attracted by players who will be either playing for the national team or having huge potential at a young age.

“Clubs will be wanting to sign players playing in the national team or a youngster with huge potential aged 18, 19 or maybe 20,” said Ngobeni.

“Zimbabwe is lagging behind when it comes to the youngsters, development is behind by far,” admitted Ngobeni, adding that the recycling of players is another problem in Zimbabwe.

“We are still seeing the clubs (in Zimbabwe) with old players in the starting eleven. I’m not saying old players must not play. I’m saying football, like any other industry, is changing.

“Clubs these days are focussing on the youngsters because the money is on the youngsters. The Congolese players I mentioned earlier are between 18 and 20, and are competing in their leagues back home as well as in the national team,” said Ngobeni.

Ngobeni urged those in charge of football in Zimbabwe to prioritize the development of youngsters.

“The most important thing which I think the godfathers of Zimbabwean football should focus on, is developing players. They must move with times, because the time is not stopping,” he said.

The agent reckons players like Billiat and former Kaizer Chiefs midfield workhorse Willard Katsande, are yet to be replaced, which is a sign of lack of development.

“In South Africa till today, there are still looking for someone to replace Khama (Billiat), (Willard) Katsande and even (Tinashe) Nengomasha,” Ngobeni said.

“But how many names of youngsters in Zimbabwe can we talk about? We can only talk about Bill (Antonio) and maybe (Blessing) Sarupinda. Who else? Zimbabwe needs to put money into developing youngsters.

“Players who are playing in the Zimbabwean league are old players who are just moving from one club to the other,” he added.

Ngobeni insists Zimbabwe has got talent but it’s just not being developed well.

“Zimbabwe has got vast talent. If you look at Southern Africa, Zimbabwe used to supply players to South African clubs. We used to have at least three players at each club in the PSL and after games, you would see Zimbabwean players standing in the corner greeting each other.

“But now, clubs in South Africa don’t look at Zimbabwean players. I do think however that Zimbabwe can still better,” added Ngobeni.

ZIFA technical director Wilson Mutekede acknowledges the problem.

“Yes it is evident that the number of our players plying their trade in South African has gone down,” said Mutekede.

“The other reality is that we cannot hide away from the fact that maybe the quality of players that we are producing are not meeting the grade. I think in the last two years or so, we have a number of youngsters that had been nipped in the bud from our league, some of them are back in the country.

“This is an unlike scenario because I recall a time when we had a big number of players moving to South Africa.

“For instance, in 2010 we had CAPS United releasing seven players at once to the South African league. Those days, players were not even going for trials, they were just being signed straightforward,” recalls Mutekede.

Mutekede admits the Zimbabwean league, the Castle Lager Premier Soccer League, has not been producing players good enough to make the cut across the Limpopo.

“Nowadays, players are going to South Africa for trials, meaning to say our league has not been churning out players that can go there to compete at the highest level,” he said.

Mutekede also believes part of the blame is on South African clubs, which rush into having interest in some youngsters before they reach their full potential.

“These clubs in South Africa, sometimes they just rush to pick the youngsters when they are just starting to bloom. So when those youngsters go and fail to make the cut, it will set a trend among other clubs there, that Zimbabwean players are not good enough,” said Mutekede.

Former Warriors goalkeeper Energy ‘Gokwe’ Murambadoro, who turned out for Bidvest Wits, Mpumalanga Black Aces and AmaZulu in the South top-flight before retiring in 2019 after a glittering career spanning over 15 years, believes the problem can be explained by an interplay of several reasons.

“It’s a combination of a lot of factors,” said Murambadoro.

“To begin with, what people don’t realize is that there is now an influx of players moving to Tanzania and Zambia. Players nowadays want huge amounts of money and at once, which explains why they are enticed by offers from Tanzania,” added the 2003 Soccer Star of the Year.

In 2020, football in Zimbabwe was halted by Covid-19 and Murambadoro believes the novel virus affected football development and limited players’ opportunities outside the country.

“To a certain extent, Covid-19 resulted in those clubs having very little or not interest whatsover in our players because we spent too much time without playing the game.

Be that as it may, Murambadoro admits that the level of football in the country has gone down.

The South African Premier Soccer League used to the home of Zimbabwean players. Nearly everything in that league had the Zimbabwean flavor   —from the highest paid player to the record goalscorer, but all that is now in the past.


Image Credit: Twitter/Golden Arrows FC

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