The Sunday Mail
PERHAPS befitting of the giant status of the arena, the first goal of the 2021-2022 Castle Lager Premier Soccer League season was scored at the National Sports Stadium.
The last goal of the first-half of the championship was also scored at the same venue.
Tino Benza scored the opening goal of the season when Herentals edged Harare City 1-0 on November 5, 2021, before Frank Makarati grabbed the last goal of the first-half via a 90th-minute header when Dynamos humbled CAPS United 3-0 on June 5.
There were 302 goals in that opening period, which saw an upsurge in hooliganism, especially in some high-profile clashes, while fan apathy, ostensibly due to the lack of star attractions, characterised many a match.
It was a first-half of unwanted records, particularly for faded giants CAPS United, who suffered their worst defeat in top-flight football.
ZPC Kariba surrendered their invincibility at Nyamhunga Stadium and are battling the threat of relegation.
The top-three race is already shaping up, with Chicken Inn enjoying a point advantage over defending champions FC Platinum, who were awarded three points for their abandoned match against Highlanders.
“What a first-half of the season we have had. It was really tough in terms of competitiveness from the teams.
“I think it’s going to be even tougher going into the second-half of the season,” Chicken Inn gaffer Joey Antipas told The Sunday Mail Sport.
For all its failure to attract decent crowds, the Premiership also had some interesting story lines.
Former Zimbabwe captain Benjani Mwaruwari returned to the local league, this time as a coach when he was unveiled at Ngezi Platinum Stars on March 29.
Mwaruwari has presided over eight games — winning two, drawing four and losing two, translating to 10 points out of a possible 24.
The ex-Manchester City and Portsmouth striker registered a 42 percent success rate.
Ngezi completed the first-half with 25 points and 10 behind log leaders Chicken Inn.
Mwaruwari’s Ngezi predecessor, Rodwell Dhlakama, also has his work cut out, as he must rescue troubled ZPC Kariba, who have recorded two wins in the nine matches they have played at their once-formidable home ground.
Nyamhunga has become so ordinary that even newboys Tenax can go there and grab three points.
The electricity men are third from bottom with 15 points, their worst start to a season since 2016 when the Premiership increased teams from 16 to 18.
Dhlakama was appointed in May to replace Godfrey Tamirepi and it looks like he is in for a bumpy ride.
“Looking at the position we are on the log, it’s not pleasing at all. It’s sad that we are still languishing in the murky waters of relegation,” said Dhlakama.
The well-travelled gaffer roped in former CAPS United coach Darlington Dodo as his assistant and is hopeful ZPC Kariba will reverse the slide.
While Nyamhunga is slowly losing its lustre, Sakubva Stadium in Mutare is gradually becoming a difficult place for visiting teams.
Manica Diamonds, Black Rhinos and Tenax use the Mutare venue as their home ground.
Army side Black Rhinos have reaped the rewards of swapping the National Sports Stadium with Sakubva.
Rhinos, who ended the first half sixth on the log with 26 points, are on a seven-game unbeaten run.
They lost once in the nine games they played at Sakubva, which is now a fortress where even champions FC Platinum and Ngezi Platinum have failed to win.
“I think it all started during the Chibuku Super Cup when we adopted Sakubva as our home ground. The boys are now used to the pitch and the environment in Mutare,” said Black Rhinos coach Herbert Maruwa.
“Gradually we are having more supporters and we are making it difficult for teams coming to Mutare. I can safely say Sakubva is our new home.”
Maruwa has assembled quite a balanced side with a mixture of youth and experience.
Veterans Farai Banda, Tawanda Nyamandwe, Allan Gahadzikwa, Blessed Mbavaira, Collen Kwaramba, Blessing Mwandimutsira and the recently acquired Dennis Dauda provide guidance for the likes of Keith Madera, Denzel Mutudza and Philip Gweva.
League debutants Tenax are also no pushovers when they play in Mutare.
In their eight matches at Sakubva, they lost twice against Yadah Stars and Herentals.
CAPS United fell to Tenax at Sakubva, as did Bulawayo City, Highlanders and Triangle.
Manica Diamonds played nine games at Sakubva, won six and drew three, scoring 15 times, including half a dozen goals in their 6-2 drubbing of CAPS United.
They conceded on three occasions only.
The Gem Boys got off to a blistering start to the season, winning five and drawing one in their opening seven games, including that famous win over CAPS United on February 27.
From a team that topped the log at some point, Johannes Nhumwa’s side fizzled out, registering seven draws and two wins in their last 10 matches of the first half.
But, Manica Diamonds will be best remembered for handing CAPS United their worst league defeat since Independence.
It was indeed a first half of unwanted records for financially crippled Makepekepe, who finished the half on a six-game losing streak, the first time they have endured a barren spell of that nature since 2012.
They also ended the first stanza without scoring in five consecutive games, as their top striker William Manondo ran out of gas.
Manondo had topped the goal-scoring charts at some point but faded as the marathon cantered towards the half-way stage.
He last scored on April 3 when CAPS United lost 1-2 to Tenax.
He finished the first half of the season with nine goals and is a goal behind leading scorer Brian Muza of Chicken Inn.
Muza has scored 10 goals and currently leads an intriguing race that also features Manica Diamonds’ Nyasha Chintuli (9), Manondo (9), FC Platinum’s Thandolwenkosi Ngwenya and Jayden Barake of WhaWha, who both have seven goals.
Midfielder Calum English-Brown, who has struck a good understanding with Barake, have provided hope at WhaWha, who anchor the log and have the worst defence, having conceded 34 times in 17 matches, at a rate of two goals per match.
Triangle wrote their own interesting story under Jairos Tapera.
Not many gave them a chance after they lost almost the entire squad and coach Taurai Mangwiro at the start of the term.
But Tapera has put together a unit of unheralded players who are led from the front by tried-and-tested striker Donald Ngoma, who has netted six times.
Triangle are the league’s highest scorers with 24 goals and finished the first half in fifth place, a remarkable position given their circumstances.
Although lack of star attractions remains a worry in the Premiership, there was a promising side with the emergence of new stars like Dynamos’ Bill Antonio, Panashe Mutimbanyoka and Ngwenya (FC Platinum), Devine Mhindirira of Highlanders and English-Brown.
The young players have overshadowed their more experienced compatriots in the league.
There is, however, hope the two-week break might have given PSL and clubs time to reflect and address fan apathy, boost entertainment value and ensure football retains its place as the country’s number one sport.