By Merit Munzwembiri

I have watched with intense interest how the Zimbabwe netball women’s team the ‘Gems’ steered a national debate following a social media video dubbed ‘’Mbare Dream Girls- A heartbreaking yet inspiring story about the Zimbabwean women World Cup Team’’ that was circulated highlighting their plight. The  well-packaged video was emotive, its effects provoking the so called judges of character to attack the media for not telling the story adequately, the sporting fraternity for neglecting women athletes and government for not prioritising a national cause. This prompted authorises to come out and speak on the matter while explaining the status quo. In a matter of hours, twitter, television, print and radio were all rattling with debate and postured explanations on the team’s progress and what was being done.

For long I had laid off writing sport, because of the effect that it has on me particularly when it involves women sport but the recent implosion on the netball Gems awoke the wolf in me to express my personal sentiments on the matter. When women sport and its challenges are talked about many are quick to blame, too often accusing the athletes and administrators of playing a feminine card. Talk of the Mighty Warriors, the ladies volleyball teams and even the basketball team and many others. I have lived through the horrors of neglect that some of these teams go through and I vividly remember experiences with the Mighty Warriors, how even with enough to buy myself an on the road takeaway, my conscience wouldn’t allow me to do so for the team would itself be starving. It was always easy to forego the luxury of a takeaway meal and travel on an empty stomach just so I could relate as a team member rather than be perceived as putting up a show of being the ‘have’ and they  the ‘have nots’. Remember we were travelling as a team.

Now back to the netball Gems the emotive appeal made by the women’s national team that ended with the athletes making a passionate ‘call out’ on personalities who they said are their role models and calling on them for help was teary. Off head I remember names of the Mataranyikas, Madam Masiyiwa, Madam Makandiwa, Madam Tagwirei, Buyanga the business man and many others being thrown around. I must admit it was very comforting to hear some of these established personalities ended up visiting the Gems in their camp after their appeal landed on the soft spots of their hearts. Government too was prompted to act and quickly organised better boarding facilities and funding for the team’s friendly matches in Uganda.

Without taking any kudos to all these efforts, my argument seeks to build and build on reality. The Gems qualification for the World Cup set for Liverpool, UK this July created euphoria but I would want to throw caution not as a prophet of doom but a practical look at what to expect having experienced sport at its highest level, the Olympics. I fear we may create a crisis of expectation which in the end may lead to many heart breaks let alone see others attacking the same team that we must always dearly and fully support.

The netball Gems qualified for the World Cup, one of the few sporting teams to ever make this historic feat for beloved Zimbabwe.  They have been African champions yes, and for those of us who knew the meaning of that, we celebrated, now they took the task even high and showed Zimbabweans that while we have insistently applied ‘our machine gun approach’ to international sport participation, there is probably need to streamline and identify those sports that Zimbabwe is good at and focus on these. We hold our Warriors dearly and year in year out, hopes are cherished that one day we will get to qualify for the Football World Cup… believe you me, history and experience has taught me this is a dream am NOT sure will be lived in my lifetime and maybe even in many decades to come. No offences meant here, for there is nothing wrong with hoping, for with hope it will take us to the worlds of nowhere but without it we will go nowhere. Our beliefs I suppose should however be motivated by reality and one reality that seats so bluntly is the scarcity of resources in Zimbabwean sport which is why I say we are better off focusing on a few sports that we have potential in and netball is one of them. This is obviously a debate for another day though in throwing my word of caution I felt it is important to sketchily put it through.

16 teams qualified for the Liverpool Netball World Cup and among these, the March 2019 World Ranking Standings placed our beloved Zimbabwean Gems on position 13 above nations namely Figi, Samoa, Sri Lanka and Singapore. From an African perspective, the Gems are ranked 4th out of the 4 participating countries, the other three being South Africa, Malawi and Uganda. Simple mathematics would put it that Zimbabwe should therefore beat at least the four nations below its ranking that is if sport respected rankings.  Now after the introduction of the new playing format (which may sound a bit complex for some) Zimbabwe will find itself in GROUP A alongside Australia, Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka for the Preliminary Stage One. Reality sinking, my best bet tells me the Gems may only snatch a win from Sri Lanka in their Group A. Australia are the world’s best and Northern Ireland is ranked 8th. The top three teams from each group will progress to the second preliminary stage, a feat that Zimbabwe’s Gems is likely to achieve.  Just a little explanation on the format, the top three teams from group A and B will form Group F and top three from Groups C and D will form Group G. Where teams in Groups F and G have already played each other in the Preliminaries Stage One (i.e A1 has already played A2 and A3) these results will carry through to the Preliminaries Stage Two. Teams finishing first and second in Groups F and G will go through to the semi finals with the top placed team in each group facing the second placed team in the other group. The winners of the semi finals will compete for gold with losers playing for bronze. Others outside these four will then be playing play offs and rank placing games.

So what am I saying? Yes, we qualified and yes as a nation we are excited but against this kind of competition have we done enough and are we ‘doing the right things’ or we are simply ‘doing things right’? Strategic thinking demands us to do the right things instead of adopting the ‘doing things right’ tactical thinking. While both for me are critical to success, I however prefer strategic thinking because strategic thinkers are concerned with doing the right things for if you do something right yet it is the wrong thing to do then one’s effort would be futile.

My personal thinking is the funds spent on sending the Gems to Uganda would have been better invested in sending them to South Africa for the following reasons:

  1. All they were doing in Uganda is playing friendly matches- this is good but value addition would have been realised in South Africa.
  2. Instead of buying last-minute air tickets which are very expensive, it would have been more beneficial to charter a luxury coach to send the team across the border either to SEMLI High Performance Center or further afield to Stellenbosch Performance Centre. There is country to country agreement for areas of cooperation and if my mind serves me right, it does cover sport- so it should be utilised!
  3. I am guessing with the amount of money for 18 x late purchase tickets for four friendlies, sadly all with just one nation, they could have had up to 10 days of experience and high level sharing and exposure at a HP Centre, inclusive of actual physical sport specific training, sport science, medicine interventions, athletes assessments, monitoring and evaluation, coach education (technical and tactical), as well as an abundance of friendly matches with high performing teams including provincial sides. The result- a better prepared team!
  4. Panic stations mean panic decisions and I think this is where we are.

So yes in the end the team travelled to Uganda for what ended up being 4 friendly matches against one team, the hosts Uganda and the result was 4 consecutive defeats:

Sunday- Uganda 57-53 Zimbabwe

Monday- Uganda 57-53 Zimbabwe

Uganda 58-48 Zimbabwe

Tuesday Uganda 58-54 Zimbabwe

Sport has evolved and become so scientific and our all conquering Gems must be prepared of what is ahead. It is not about pressing panic buttons. With almost two months to get to Liverpool, we need as a country to fully prepare this team both physically, mentally, technically and scientifically if we expect it to go and put up a good show. As it is, we can only prepare to go and learn!