Opinion: Save Our Football, Zimbabwe

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers…

In these uncertain times for Zimbabwean football, the only certainty is that we as a country do not take the sport seriously as a career path, let alone a source of livelihood.

We are fast approaching a year since the Sports and Recreation Commission, a government-appointed body, suspended the Zimbabwe Football Association board. The reasons for the board’s suspension were the misappropriation of government-allocated funds for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations and the allegations of sexual harassment and assault of female match officials. Allegations of misappropriation of government funds and sexual harassment are not issues that should be taken lightly. A proper investigation of both accusations and due legal procedure should be followed to get to the bottom of the problems and appropriate legal action taken.

My issue with this case lies with the time it has taken, whether due to negligence or failure to appreciate the need for the matters to be resolved expeditiously so that football activities being held for ransom can continue.

It is within the ambit of the roles and responsibilities of the Sports and Recreation Commission to ensure the proper administration of organisations undertaking the promotion of sport and recreation. The Commission, in terms of its founding Act, funds the participation of athletes in competitions through the funds that it receives from the government. The Act also stipulates that the Act has a responsibility to protect anyone who is employed by a sports association or federation against exploitation. Where the Commission is of the opinion that sections of the Act have been contravened. The Commission has the power to suspend an association’s board and replace it with a committee. The committee must then, as soon as practicable, take steps to appoint a new governing body of the association in terms of the constitution and rules of the association.

And this is where the problem lies.

The Sports and Recreation Act provisions conflict with the principle of non-interference from FIFA. The Zimbabwe Football Association, as the governing body of football in Zimbabwe, agreed to be under the control of FIFA. FIFA may take appropriate steps to prevent infringement of its Statutes, regulations or decisions. A football association wishing to be a Member Association of FIFA shall comply with the mandatory provisions of always complying with the Statutes, regulations and decisions of FIFA and its Confederation; in the case of ZIFA, it would be CAF.

The principle of non-interference is one of FIFA’s most sacred provisions. Article 17 of the FIFA statutes states that:

“Each member shall manage its affairs independently and with no influence from third parties.”

The issue of government interference in football is one that FIFA frowns upon. While there is no precise definition of government interference, the Court of Arbitration for Sport case precedents, the use of a government Act and a government-appointed body to suspend a duly elected and independent football governing body would fall under the definition of government interference. The principle of non-interference in football is borne out of FIFA’s need not to have football activities affected by a government’s dissatisfaction with the sporting performances and administration.

The Commission’s act of suspending the ZIFA board and replacing it with a governing committee was in direct contravention of Article 17 of the FIFA Statutes and has led to this stalemate. The Commission has spent the last seven months following the Sports and Recreation Commission Act acting timeously to have a new board elected in terms of the ZIFA statutes. However, this does not address or cure the original sin of government interference. FIFA subsequently wrote to ZIFA and the SRC, advising them that the only way to resolve the matter was by overturning the initial suspension.

While the battles are being waged in air-conditioned boardrooms via email, football suffers. By football, I mean people. Football, like any other sport, is in a unique position that I believe many fail to appreciate. Football players in the footballing industry are both the product and the labour. I cannot think of any other industry in the world where due to a governing body stand-off at the boardroom level, the whole business would be allowed to grind to a seven-month and counting standstill with no sign of a resolution or timeline in sight. I repeat, sports administrators and we as a country do not recognise, acknowledge or appreciate footballers as professionals with careers and working for a livelihood. Despite it being common knowledge that football careers are notoriously short, we seem to fail to understand that a year of not participating and competing at an international level is of great detriment to the careers, opportunities and income of footballers, referees and other members of the football community support system that work within the game.

From the Africa Cup of Nations 2022. Zimbabwe football has so far* missed out on the following notable tournaments. The COSAFA Men’s Championships, where we have been five-time winners, and it has been the launch pad for multiple careers in international football, The COSAFA Womens CAF Womens Champions League Qualifiers, where the Black Rhinos Queens ended as runners-up in last year’s edition. The same result this year would see them participate in the CAF Womens Champions League finals 2022. CAF has launched the African Football Super League, a reportedly 100-million-dollar tournament in which our club giants Dynamos and Highlanders are supposed to have a share as continental giants. The 2026 World Cup shall have 48 teams which means that Africa will have nine and a half slots. How are we supposed to strategically plan to make it in the middle of this turmoil? At a grassroots level, the CAF Schools football programme has been launched; we are again being left behind by development. FIFAs GIVE EVERY TALENT A CHANCE Report identified competition as one of the critical components for the sustainable development of football in countries and regions.

So, what is the way forward?

I believe it is time that the Commission concedes to the rules of FIFA. The principle of non-interference is a long-standing principle with plenty of legal precedents. This should not be considered a defeat of justice for the alleged victims of sexual assault or a victory for those accused of misappropriation of funds. There are alternative mechanisms to get justice for the victims and arrest those who allegedly misappropriated funds. This concession will lead to open dialogue and the best way forward for all parties involved. As sports administrators, officials and members of executive authorities, the irony is not lost when we fail to appreciate playing within the rules of a game. When it comes to football governance and administration, FIFA makes the rules.

With the original suspension of the ZIFA lifted, the SRC has alternative remedies from the SRC Act. Remedies that won’t result in the suspension of Zimbabwean football. The Commission has the power to request, as soon as practicable at the end of a financial year, the Audited Financial Statements of ZIFA as a form of investigation of the purported abuse of funds. A failure to produce this can then be reported to FIFA as the governing body of football to take action against those responsible as executive board members but not at the expense of football.

In the case of safeguarding the female match officials. This matter has hopefully been reported to the relevant statutory protection services and agencies within the country. Suppose they fear they won’t see justice within the country’s system. FIFA has the BKMS system under the “Violation of the FIFA Code of Ethics” category “Protection of physical and mental integrity”. Here you can report any safeguarding concerns on a confidential, dedicated, highly secure and web-based whistleblowing system. In that case, there will be consequences for the violation of the FIFA Code of Ethics with a lesser degree of burden of proof compared to the criminal justice system, one of beyond a reasonable doubt.

Lastly, my appeal is to football fans, current players, former players, administrators, members of the civic community and the government leadership. This neglect of the livelihoods of people cannot go on any longer. I commend Gabriel Nyoni, whose tweet #saveourfootball got me to write this OP-ED. We need to unite and stand up for football. It is not only for us to enjoy the Mighty Warriors and Warriors play. It is a fight for opportunities and improved livelihoods that are being lost with each day that passes. Our struggle should not only stop with the upliftment of the ban; it should extend to the protection of those who feel vulnerable and fear exploitation of any form, especially women and children.

Francis Makonese is a legal and corporate governance practitioner. He writes this in his personal capacity.

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