The government has not figured out a sustainable business model for running depreciating sports facilities such as Bingu National Stadium (BNS), Kamuzu Stadium and BAT Ground, yet it wants to construct one each for Nyasa Big Bullets and Be Forward Wanderers in Blantyre.
Reason? The glorified Blantyre football giants, for all their claims that their fan-base is in millions, do not own such facilities.
If you ask Bullets and Wanderers, Blantyre has a shortage of such venues.
But is that true? In Blantyre, there is BAT Ground, Kamuzu Stadium, MDC Stadium, Chiwembe Stadium and Escom Ground. These are public and private facilities which the two teams can turn into their homes. Additionally, just an hour’s drive takes you to Mulanje, Balaka and Kalulu stadiums.
Overall, Malawi has, actually, too many football stadiums including Mangochi, Kasungu, Nankhaka, Silver, Civo, Balaka, Karonga, Dedza and Mzuzu. Add others that are under construction in Zomba, Ntcheu, Monkey Bay, Mzimba and Thyolo and you get a sense that the jazz about lack of football facilities in Malawi is an exaggeration.
The issue is that most of these facilities are in shambles. Decades ago, BAT used to host international games. The venue is considered part of domestic football’s heritage but now is so bumpy and dusty like a Manganje ground; the wooden terraces and everything about the facility is a sorry sight.
BAT, with an estimated 5,000 capacity, is unfit to host any high profile event. The government was, until recently, running it. Failing to run it actually.
Now the Sports Ministry has transferred ownership to Malawi National Council of Sports, the government’s sports policy implantation arm which has a better record of facility management. Now renovations have started.
In the 1980s, Kamuzu Institute for Sports and Lilongwe Community Centre could host high profile sports events. This is no longer the case now.
The story is the same with Kamuzu Stadium. Renovations always take place at this facility but the more money (over K1 billion) is budgeted for the event, the more it remains in a dilapidated state.
Terraces that were condemned as shaky remain cordoned off since 2012. Capital Hill is undecided whether to keep on renovating the stadium or demolish it.
Demolition is a very expensive exercise and so is building a new stadium. Even more considering that the government has promised to build another stadium at Njamba Freedom Park.
In total, the government wants to construct three new stadiums. Not an easy task considering that the government is struggling to run facilities such as BNS, an amazing piece of architecture located in Area 49 in Lilongwe, where for all its elegance, it remains underutilised; hence failing to realise enough money to meet overhead expenses especially utility bills of K20 million per month.
At bear minimum, whoever wants to use BNS must pay around K2 million to offset costs for cleaning, water and electricity for one event.
Football clubs were supposed to be the biggest clients but they find it expensive and the biggest loser is the facility itself.
From the above examples, it is clear that the government is failing to run sports facilities.
Should the government not be stressing about keeping the existing infrastructure in better shape instead of going for new ones? Football Association of Malawi (Fam) President, Walter Nyamilandu, does not think so.
Ironically, his association is struggling to run what used to be called MDC Stadium but has, using Fifa’s funding, put Chiwembe back to its feet.
Speaking at Sanjika Palace during a meeting which President Peter Mutharika hosted on Wednesday, Nyamilandu asked Mutharika to consider constructing one more national stadium in Blantyre.
“Infrastructure remains an integral part of the game but unfortunately, these two clubs do not have their own. By building stadiums for the two teams, you are actually supporting the hub of football in the country. It is also important to consider constructing a national stadium in Blantyre,” he said.
Taking his turn, Mutharika erased lingering doubts on the government’s commitment to using tax payers’ money to construct each of the Blantyre giants a stadium.
“My government will always support football. That is why I decided to construct the stadiums for Bullets and Wanderers. I know [that] there are people who are opposed to this development. But these are people who do not wish you well. So, let us ignore them. We cannot build these stadiums in one day. But we will build them, and soon for that matter,” he said.
Indeed, there were doubts when the then sports minister Grace Chiumia showed Bullets and Wanderers pieces of land where the facilities would be constructed in Blantyre.
Now, the government seems determined to pursue that project.
Nothing wrong with the President constructing football stadiums but these teams are private entities that should have by now known how to fish and not always wait for free fish.
“The question of why the government is constructing stadiums to private clubs does not arise. My answer to this criticism is that we are developing football in this country.
Besides, these stadiums will always be used and enjoyed by the public,” he said.
Experience shows that the more the government gives such teams freebies, the more they become lazy and fail to think outside the box.
In 2004, the then president Bakili Muluzi thought he was doing Bullets a favour when he sponsored the team with K15 million per annum for five years, made the team’s home continental league games freeof-charge and paid air tickets for scores of supporters to watch Bullets’ Caf Champions League games in Uganda, South Africa and Zambia.
Riding on Muluzi’s strong financial push and supporters’ backing, Bullets achieved their bestever performance on the continental platform as they scaled the greater group stage heights after eliminating Ugandan side SC Villa, Zanaco from Zambia and former African champions Orlando Pirates of South Africa.
However, Muluzi’s sponsorship was never going to be sustainable because he did not empower Bullets to generate money.
Soon, Muluzi’s sponsorship ran its course and Bullets were back to square one–destitute and their performance took a big knock they even ran the risk of relegation in the Super League.
Cifu Group of Companies an Bullets Holdings Limited tried to rescue the team but, with supporters thriving on the confusion, running the team was never going to be easy considering it had no real estate.
A group of enterprising football administrators led by Malinda Chinyama revived Bullets, securing them a club house and bringing stability which paved way for Nyasa Manufacturing Company (NMC) to come on board with a massive cash injection of K100 million per year on a five-year contract.
Soon, NMC turned the team into a company after acquiring a control stake while promising to construct them club houses including in Lilongwe and buy a new bus among others.
NMC bought Bullets what appears to be a reconditioned bus which usually breaks down, the latest being a fortnight ago when its journey to Bulawayo for the Champions League match against FC Platinum ended somewhere in Mozambique.
NMC, which inherited Bullets’ debt of K185 million, is yet to construct the promised training facility and clubhouses in each region and a stadium.
However, the company has invested in the playing squad, providing enough incentives and ensuring exposure to international competitions.
Wanderers have, since the 1980s, wanted to construct a stadium. The Nomads enjoy Be Forward Limited’s sponsorship but still lack infrastructure such as a training pitch and a stadium.
If Bullets are on the path to commercialisation, Wanderers are yet to even embark on that route. On paper, they claim to be going that route.
That Bullets and Wanderers are failing to buy a piece of land, at even K5 million, and construct a training ground is all down to the overdependence syndrome.
With more progressive thinking, Bullets and Wanderers can invest in facilities such as BAT and make them their home grounds. In fact, Balaka Stadium spokesperson, Mary Makhiringa, has complained that the facility is underutilised.
“During the 2018 season, the stadium grossed about K23 million which was shared among stakeholders. We benefitted from this amount as ground owners and ploughed the money back into the facility. But now the situation is bad as we cannot maintain it because there is no revenue being generated,” she said.
In a country where the government has health and education issues to worry about, spending on construction of three new stadiums when many more are in a dilapidated condition makes political sense but certainly not make economic sense.
Peter Kanjere is a versatile Journalist currently working for Times Group as Assistant Editor for The Daily Times.
With vast experience in the industry, he is also an accomplished Sports Analyst, whose exploits in sports reporting and analysis span beyond the length and breadth of the African continent.