An open letter to Knowledge Musona
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