Harare – As Zimbabwe remains suspended from international football, players in the country – from a very promising rookie who made his national team debut as a schoolboy to the established professionals plying their trade in Europe’s best leagues – have spoken of their anguish and frustration.
In November last year, Zimbabwe Football Association (ZIFA) President Felton Kamambo and his entire executive were removed by the Sports and Recreation Commission (SRC), a government body that controls sport in the country, after being accused of corruption, misadministration and sexual harassment of female match officials.
Three months later, Zimbabwe were expelled from the 2024 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) qualifiers after the SRC refused to comply with a FIFA directive to reinstate those officials. It remains unclear when Zimbabwe will play international football again.
For 19-year-old Bill Antonio, currently the brightest young prospect in Zimbabwe’s under-funded domestic league, the disciplinary measure has deprived him of the chance to attract interest abroad.
Last week, Antonio flew out for a month-long trial with Belgian club KV Mechelen, hoping his life can take a turn for the better after a disadvantaged upbringing in one of capital Harare’s low-income suburbs.
“The ban closed opportunities for us young players,” Antonio told Al Jazeera while he was still in Zimbabwe. “It slowed down things in terms of marketing ourselves out there, because international football is where everyone is noticed.”
Antonio was raised in Dzivarasekwa, a township of Harare where the levels of drug abuse and other vices among youth are rising worryingly as the country battles worsening socioeconomic issues.
Antonio was able to block it out and grew up well-disciplined, focusing on his education and sport.
This won him a football scholarship at Harare’s Prince Edward School, a conveyor belt of sporting talent whose list of alumni includes former world number one golfer Nick Price, cricket coach Duncan Fletcher as well as a record-breaking Springboks rugby player Tonderai Chavhanga.
Last November, Antonio, still in school, made headlines when he was selected for the national team for a World Cup qualifier in South Africa.
He played the last 13 minutes, prompting foreign clubs to take notice but some needed to watch him play more at the international level before being convinced.
Antonio, already a breadwinner for his family, desperately needed more time on the field but the country’s suspension dealt him a heavy blow.
“It’s an opportunity missed indeed because the more opportunities to play international football, the greater your profile becomes.”
For 22-year-old defender Jordan Zemura, the suspension dealt a different kind of pain.
It has always been some kind of romantic connection with the homeland of his immigrant Zimbabwean parents for the London-born Zemura to play for Zimbabwe.
The roving wing-back, who played a significant role in Bournemouth’s promotion to the English Premier League, has been capped six times by Zimbabwe, including at this year’s AFCON.
Because of COVID-related disturbances, Zemura arrived late in Cameroon for the tournament and only played one full game for the Warriors. But he impressed onlookers enough to be dubbed a future captain.
“I’m gutted that we won’t be able to have the chance to qualify [for AFCON],” Zemura told Al Jazeera.
“I’m hoping that things can be resolved as playing for my country is everything for me. Missing these tournaments and opportunities hurt.”
Gerald Mlotshwa, head of the SRC, told Al Jazeera that they “expected the ban” from FIFA.
“The conditions that had been put forward by FIFA to avoid a ban were not in sync with what we at SRC had sought,” Mlotshwa said, insisting that time away from international football will breathe new life into Zimbabwean football.
“In a sense, the suspension – not a ban – has allowed everyone to focus on the reform process without the distraction of the [AFCON] qualifiers,” said Mlotshwa.
With funding from FIFA frozen, and the national team not playing, it could adversely affect growth and interest in the game in the country.
Still, Mlotshwa maintains that all is under control.
“There was obvious disappointment from some quarters, especially the football fans who just want to see the Warriors playing. But I think that they, too, will come to appreciate that the suspension is for the long-term benefit of the game in Zimbabwe.”
The sacked ZIFA officials refused to comment on the matter, telling Al Jazeera they were barred from discussing the matter in public as they are under investigation.
A bleak future
Meanwhile, another big Zimbabwe star to reveal his “big disappointment” is Marshall Munetsi, a midfielder at French side Reims, who was linked with a move to English side Brighton and Hove Albion.
The 26-year-old missed this year’s AFCON due to injury and was looking forward to bouncing back by helping Zimbabwe seal a place at the 2023 edition.
“Missing AFCON is a very big disappointment to the players and fans,” Munetsi told Al Jazeera.
“I missed out on the last tournament because of injury and then not being able to represent my country again is even more disappointing.”
With football in the country in limbo, and no solutions in sight, Munetsi fears the future could be bleak.
“The future of our football is clouded in uncertainty because we have no clue of what’s going on. Everyone is concerned with how the situation was handled. The current generation, and those that will come, will lose big opportunities to chase their dreams and changing their lives through football.”
The apparent dejection caused by Zimbabwe’s ban has also been felt by another newcomer to the side – 24-year-old midfielder Nyasha Dube, who arrived in the United States in 2017 on a football scholarship.
After completing his studies at two universities, Dube has played for two senior clubs in the semi-professional structures of the game in the US.
In 2021, he signed for Arkansas Wolves, and was later selected by Zimbabwe for an annual regional tournament in South Africa, making one appearance.
Chuffed by the call-up, he hoped for more international opportunities to boost his chances of moving to a bigger league.
“It’s really disappointing to see us as a country not playing,” Dube, who hails from the small coal-mining town of Hwange in northwestern Zimbabwe, told Al Jazeera.
“For us younger players, playing international football increases our chances of being recognised in other markets, like Europe and in America. Not playing international football affects us because for now, no one is getting called up, and no one is getting those caps. Nobody is noticing us.
“It’s a setback. It is everyone’s dream to represent their country at a big stage like AFCON. I think people who are running the organisation (Zimbabwean FA) need to do what FIFA is saying.”