THE ongoing action in the Chibuku Super Cup competition being hosted at four venues across the country in Mutare, Harare, Bulawayo and Zvishavane finally ushered the keenly anticipated return of local top-flight football and it has set pulses racing.
Domestic soccer was last played in mid-March of 2020 during the Castle Challenge Cup pitting Premiership champions, FC Platinum and the knockout tournament winners, Highlanders.
That competition was meant to curtain-raise the league campaign which had been earmarked to kick-off at the end of that same month.
At that time an outbreak of the novel coronavirus forced the suspension of all sporting activities resulting in the season being deferred indefinitely. This followed a national lockdown enforced as a measure of combating the Covid-19 global pandemic.
Since then, domestic football was on pause until the Government gave the green light for its safe return in strict compliance with the guidelines recommended by World Health Organisation and Ministry of Health and Child Care.
Exactly 433 days had elapsed in the intervening period.
Now the most popular sport in the land has bounced back, but not without scoring firsts!
Traditionally, the season used to get underway with league games and would be punctuated by action from the knockout tournament mid-stream.
This is not the case this time around with the Chibuku Super Cup kick-starting the league marathon. This marks a shift in the conventional cycle of the campaign.
The Chibuku competition has been set as a pilot project to assess the feasibility of the gradual return of Premiership league proceedings. Football’s complete recommencement hinges on how this provisional and partial resumption pans out.
With the game having been classified as a high-risk sport, for now only the national, Castle Premier Soccer League and Women’s Soccer League teams have been cleared by the authorities to train and take to the field.
All other football lower leagues and social games remain prohibited.
In a letter to Zifa announcing the Government’s approval to restart the game, Sports and Recreation Commission director general, Prince Mupazviriho, said: “We reiterate that this is a phased approach to resumption of football activities in the country. Assessments will be done during the initial stage on whether or not all provisions are in place and adherence to set protocols in order to inform the complete resumption of all football activities.”
One of the conditions for football’s tentative return was that it gets staged under a bio-bubble concept. This has necessitated the mini-league format, resulting in the Chibuku Super Cup being played at the four locations countrywide.
Unlike in the past, where teams used to be drawn from the lots to determine who plays who and where, this time around they have been lumped into groups where each set will be domiciled at a certain venue for the cluster competition.
Previously, teams progressed to the next round by eliminating opponents in once-off encounters; yet now the top two teams with the most points from each of the four groups will advance to the quarter-finals.
This term teams are playing more games owing to the home-and-away format in the groups phase, unlike in the past when they faced off once at each stage. The knockout tournament has assumed the form of a round-robin.
The bio-bubble, according to online sources, is a hosting arrangement for sporting events under which competitions are held at a centralised site — often behind doors — with strict isolation and safety protocols in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
This effectively creates a safe and secure environment that is only accessed by a certain set of people who have tested negative for Covid-19 or have been vaccinated so as to minimise physical interaction with the outside world.
Virtually everything remains largely indoors for the entire duration of the tournament, with players, technical staff, match officials, medical teams, security personnel and media persons being allotted zones in which they must confine. For the first time, all matches will be played without fans inside the stadiums.
The diamond-mining city scored a first by hosting a match featuringtwo Premiership teams from the metropolis. Manica Diamonds and Tenax wrote history on Sunday as the protagonists of the historic Mutare Derby.
And they did not disappoint, their entertaining contest living up to its pre-match billing. Three well-taken strikes and the drama of a squandered penalty kick spiced up the duel as the sides slugged it out for bragging rights which deservedly went the prison wardens’ way after a workmanlike 2-1 victory.
In breaking the ice, the clash certainly served as an appetiser for the eagerly awaited and potentially explosive double-legged confrontation at Sakubva Stadium when the league action eventually explodes.
Excitement, meanwhile, is already building up among followers of the game around Manicaland Province if post-match comments by supporters on various social media platforms is anything to go by.
With the curtain already raised, the stage is therefore now set for exhilarating and bruising battles between the cross-town rivals.
On Sunday, Chauya Chikara and the Gem Boys proved that they can rise to the occasion.
Sakubva Stadium special
While some teams from outside the resource-rich province have in the past adopted the facility as their home ground, never before has the arena hosted a competition of such momentous nature.
For the course of this cluster competition spanning about five weeks, Sakubva will be home to Manica Diamonds, Tenax as well as the visiting duo of Black Rhinos and Cranborne Bullets.
For a facility that had been previously banned from hosting top-flight fixtures for failure to meet the required minimum standards, this is a welcome and positive development good for Mutare and Manicaland’s game.