An open let­ter to Knowl­edge Mu­sona

Chronicle (Zimbabwe) - - Sport - Farayi Mungazi Spe­cial Cor­re­spon­dent

Dear Knowl­edge, IT’S great to see you in such sen­sa­tional form in the first few weeks of Bel­gium’s top divi­sion. You’re of­fer­ing fur­ther proof of your un­doubted abil­ity to trou­ble de­fend­ers and goal­keep­ers alike.

Now, as a sports jour­nal­ist, I have a pro­fes­sional obli­ga­tion to watch all lev­els of sport, par­tic­u­larly in Africa. I fol­low sports­men and women from our con­ti­nent as they com­pete all over the world.

I’m also a Zim­bab­wean. Nat­u­rally, I’m in­ter­ested in the ca­reers of peo­ple like you. That’s the ca­pac­ity in which I’m writ­ing this open let­ter. Hope­fully, it will give you a few things to mull over.

My heart sank the other day when re­ports emerged that you have been bet­ting on foot­ball matches. My heart sank be­cause with the Africa Cup of Na­tions loom­ing on the hori­zon, the last thing you need is to be too fo­cused on things off the pitch rather than on it.

My heart sank be­cause you’re one of the best we have. You don’t need me to re­mind you that no player has found the back of the net more of­ten than you since the re­tire­ment of a cer­tain Peter Ndlovu.

Knowl­edge, my heart sank be­cause for all the ques­tion marks else­where on the team, your im­por­tance to the War­riors is be­yond dis­pute. As well as hav­ing an im­pres­sive goal-scor­ing record, you’re adept at hold­ing the ball up and bring­ing oth­ers into play.

Given your pen­chant for pro­duc­ing rab­bits out of the hat, I can see you emerg­ing as one of the stars of Gabon 2017. Fi­nally, my heart sank be­cause rather than work­ing hard to bet­ter your game, you may find your­self dis­tracted by a vice that has seen many African play­ers go from rags to riches — and back to rags again.

Many are called but few are cho­sen, so says the good book. Be­ing paid a small for­tune to play a sport you love is a priv­i­lege en­joyed by a cho­sen few. You’re one of them. Only a per­son liv­ing un­der a rock won’t know that pro­fes­sional foot­ball is go­ing through a pe­riod of un­prece­dented wealth. And a lot of that cash ends up in the pock­ets of play­ers like you.

You will no doubt plead poverty when stand­ing next to Paul Pogba or Cris­tiano Ron­aldo, but I’m sure that K.V. Oos­tende is pay­ing you well enough to give you a fan­tas­tic liv­ing while sav­ing for a com­fort­able re­tire­ment. At this junc­ture, let me also re­mind you that pro­fes­sional foot­ball is awash with for­mer play­ers liv­ing in the shadow of penury, their road to ruin hav­ing be­gun by plac­ing so-called ‘fun bets’ on the horses one day and a punt on a foot­ball match the next.

Knowl­edge, there is ab­so­lutely no sug­ges­tion of any crim­i­nal­ity on your part, but there is one thing that I’ve learned in my time as a sports jour­nal­ist: many African play­ers are ex­tremely care­less with their cash. I’m des­per­ately hop­ing that you’re not one of them.

You may not know this but three years ago, I made a ra­dio doc­u­men­tary for the BBC called Pity the Poor Soc­cer Stars. I trav­elled to Zam­bia, South Africa, Ghana and Nige­ria and came across nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples of play­ers who squan­dered their for­tunes. Not all of them are vic­tims of gam­bling but many of them will­ingly handed their money to book­mak­ers. They had grown up in poverty and less than ideal con­di­tions but foot­ball gave them a way out of poverty. How­ever, they had lost most or all of their money by the time their ca­reers ended. Think of Phil Masinga (South Africa), Eli­jah Li­tana (Zam­bia), Ce­les­tine Baba­yaro (Nige­ria) and Eric Djem­baD­jemba (Cameroon) to name just a few for­mer mil­lion­aires. Knowl­edge, there are no words to de­scribe my en­counter with Li­tana. The for­mer Zam­bian de­fender told me through tears that he blew nearly $3m earned in Saudi Ara­bia through gam­bling and drink­ing. He now lives in a road­side shack just out­side Lusaka. As you’ll ap­pre­ci­ate, $3m is the kind of money that or­di­nary fans can only dream about. Four years ago, I saw a big­name African player who used to play in the English Premier League lose a £2 500 bet on a horse. When I re­minded him that he’d just lost a huge sum of money, he laughed it off. It breaks my heart to tell you that to­day he’s well down the slip­pery slope.

You may ar­gue that gam­bling af­fects peo­ple from all walks of life and riches-to-rags sto­ries are not unique to African foot­ballers. That’s ab­so­lutely true. The for­mer Liver­pool mid­fielder Di­et­mar Hamann re­vealed in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy that he once lost more than £288 000 on a sin­gle bet on a cricket match. There are many oth­ers like him.

Whilst mak­ing my BBC doc­u­men­tary, most play­ers told me that gam­bling was a way of re­liev­ing bore­dom, usu­ally on long jour­neys and af­ter train­ing. Sub­se­quent re­search by ex­perts has, in­deed, proved that foot­ballers with plenty of time on their hands and a lot of money to play with are very sus­cep­ti­ble to gam­bling ad­dic­tion.

It in­vari­ably starts with a few bets for fun and be­fore you know it things are out of con­trol and your ca­reer be­gins to un­ravel. And with to­day's tech­nol­ogy a player does not have to leave his seat to place a bet. Play­ers gam­ble thou­sands of dol­lars by text or on­line.

Knowl­edge, de­spite all the hul­la­bal­loo around your al­leged gam­bling habit, I doubt that you wish to be­come an­other riches-to-rags statis­tic. I, there­fore, im­plore you in the name of the War­riors to give the gam­bling habit the red card, and fo­cus on the things that aid your ca­reer. Never for­get that whilst play­ing pro­fes­sion­ally can be an ex­tremely lu­cra­tive job, it’s also short-lived.

Ul­ti­mately, it’s not my busi­ness to tell you what to do with your money. But if you’re in need of a few more mo­ments of re­flec­tion, you might like to con­sider this quote from the James Bond book (and movie) Casino Royale, writ­ten by Ian Flem­ing: “There is a very easy way to re­turn from a casino with a small for­tune; go there with a large one.” See you in Gabon next year. Yours in sport, Farayi Mungazi

Farayi Mungazi works for the BBC in Lon­don. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @BBCFarayi

Knowl­edge Mu­sona

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