The fans arrived for the Harare derby hours early, with one side of the National Sports Stadium decked out in the blue of Dynamos FC and the other in the green of their bitter rivals CAPS United.
As 35,000 fans taunted each other in a feverish atmosphere, Dynamos won the game 2-0. At the final whistle, dozens of their fans invaded the pitch in joy.
While still far from the Harare derby’s glory days in the mid-1990s, when 45,000-plus fervent fans packed the stadium for a contest that brought the capital to a standstill, it was a marked improvement on recent seasons when the derby could barely muster attendances of 10,000.
Football is the number one sport in the southern African country of 16 million people but fans had lost interest in the domestic game in recent years, chiefly due to the weak performances of the best-supported clubs, with newer, smaller clubs dominating.
To add to its woes, Zimbabwe was suspended by football’s world governing body Fifa in February 2022 over government interference in the Zimbabwe Football Association (Zifa) – a ban that applied to all national teams and the country’s clubs at the continental level, including women and youth teams.
But while the ban has been a huge blow in many ways, Zimbabwe’s domestic game – able to play on as the league does not fall under Fifa’s or the Confederation of African Football’s control – has experienced something of a revival.
Attendance has risen across the Zimbabwe Premier Soccer League (PSL) to an average of about 15,000 this season, up from about 2,000 last season.
“People miss international football, that might have caused the big improvement we are witnessing in domestic attendances lately,” Dynamos CEO Jonathan Mashingaidze told Al Jazeera after his club’s recent derby victory.
Meanwhile, the standard of the bigger clubs has improved as corporate sponsors – who have normally focused on bankrolling the national team – have diverted more financial resources towards domestic football since Fifa’s ban.
Dynamos, Zimbabwe’s most decorated club, have won a record 22 league titles since they were formed in 1963 and reached the African Champions League final in 1998.
But over the past five years, the country’s biggest clubs Dynamos and Bulawayo giants Highlanders had lost ground to newer clubs who have enjoyed the advantage of being owned and administered by big companies heavily involved in Zimbabwe’s economy.
FC Platinum, owned by a large multi-national mining company, were Zimbabwean champions for the past four seasons, despite only reaching the top-flight in 2011 and being formed in 1995.
But Dynamos and Highlanders are now both sponsored by a money-spinning commodities business, Sakunda Holdings.
“The clubs owned by the big corporates had an edge over us on the transfer market in recent years,” Mashingaidze, who is also a former general-secretary of Zifa, said.
“We didn’t have money. If Dynamos or Highlanders wanted to buy a very good player, Chicken Inn [a club owned by a group of consumer goods manufacturers], for instance, would offer the player more than we were offering,” he added.
“Now, thanks to sponsorship, we can now compete on the transfer market and as you can see, we’ve managed to sign some quality players this season.”
With the cheapest ticket pegged at $2, football is also one of the few only affordable sources of entertainment and an escape from the hardships of daily life in Zimbabwe, which is mired in economic crisis and unemployment.
At the Harare derby, CAPS fan Tawanda Marumani told Al Jazeera that he had lost interest in watching his club as the standard had fallen, and only the national team had interested him.
“But without the Warriors now, I missed the atmosphere of the stadiums – the singing, the dancing, the banter and the friendships,” he said. “So I will attend all CAPS matches here at home and also travel to some of the away games outside Harare. And we are playing so well early on this new season, despite the pain of losing badly today to Dynamos.”
But PSL and club officials feared that while the domestic game has improved, it will be hard to sustain if the country remains an international footballing pariah.
“The longer the ban lasts, the likelier standards will fall without continental or international football. The league’s finances will also take a hit as sponsors are likely to lose interest in the longer-term and FIFA’s funding, including for refereeing and coaching courses, remains frozen.
“We can’t remain in the wilderness any longer,” Mashingaidze said. “Sponsors want their brands to be seen at the continental and international level,” he said.
Meanwhile, as Zimbabwe cannot play currently in the Africa Cup of Nations and World Cup qualifiers, the ban is hurting the die-hard fans.
“I never used to miss a Warriors game, certainly not over the past 20 years,” Marumani said. “The suspension hurts because I believe now we had assembled a very good team to finally take us to our first World Cup finals, and without doubt qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations again.”
However, there are few indications that the ban will be lifted soon.
Zimbabwe was suspended after the Sports and Recreation Commission (SRC), the state body responsible for sport, fired Zifa president Felton Kamambo and his entire board of directors over allegations of corruption and sexual harassment of female match officials.
Kamambo and his board have denied embezzling any funds, with Kamambo telling Al Jazeera that “one day, we will be exonerated.” He has declined to comment further.
Other officials are alleged to have pestered female match officials for sex in return for appointments – including the former secretary general of Zifa’s referees committee, Obert Zhoya, who was banned from football for five years by Fifa in September 2022. Zhoya declined to comment to Al Jazeera about the allegations and the ban.
Fifa has repeatedly said that the condition for Zimbabwe’s reinstatement is the unconditional return of Kamambo and his board to office, even though they are set to stand trial in the country’s courts.
The SRC is adamant that bringing back the Kamambo leadership is no longer legally possible because, after they were initially sacked, a constitutionally recognised Zifa council sealed the officials’ fate by passing a vote of no-confidence at an extraordinary general meeting.
After a Fifa “fact-finding” delegation visited Zimbabwe last month and met SRC and PSL officials, the head of the SRC, Gerald Mlotshwa, told local media that “both sides are committed to finding a solution to the problems bedevilling football in this country.”
Fifa has not yet released a statement or report following the meetings and the impasse drags on.
Back at the raucous recent Harare derby, Dynamos supporter Kudakwashe Chitungo told Al Jazeera that it was unfair for the players to be denied the chance to play for their country.
“These players are being punished for a crime that they didn’t commit. They are just pawns at the mercy of egoistic people in big offices who are refusing to do what is required to be done for the ban to be removed. They are in the centre of a fight they nothing about. The players’ dreams are being shattered,” he said.
“The domestic league is all they have for now, so my buddies and I will be turning up every single game to support them.”-Al Jazeera