Since time immemorial, soccer clubs have always been regarded as temples of belonging but the advent of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic has rendered this supposedly glamorous ownership a costly and unsustainable expenditure for everyone in the vanguard of the country’s number one sport.

The novel coronavirus has not only hit our sports for a six but the world over has been affected.  For example, top clubs like Spain’s FC Barcelona have lost their most prized possession, Leonel Messi, arguably the best player to ever walk on God’s green earth, but have also had to cut salaries to keep their balance sheet intact.

If the heat has been felt by the world glamorous sides like FC Barcelona, what about little eSwatini’s three Big Clubs – Mbabane Swallows, Manzini Wanderers and Mbabane Highlanders who are traditionally run on shoe-string budgets at the benevolence of a few individuals with a couple of thousands of Emalangeni to spare?

If truth be told, it has been a traumatic experience for club owners in the country as they operate with no source of income and things were made worse by a compressed four-month season in which they played three games in seven days to meet the Confederation of African Football (CAF) extended deadline of August 15.

Since March 8, 2020 when the Ingwenyama Cup final saw Green Mamba beat Mbabane Highlanders 2-0 in a one-sided cup final, soccer fans have not come anywhere near a soccer stadium due to the strict COVID-19 pandemic regulations. This has left the clubs having to live from hand to mouth and barely surviving as the economic hardships bit deeper into an already unsustainable industry struggling to reach its full potential.

With the Eswatini Football Association (EFA) holding tenaciously to all monies from the Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA), the Premier League of Eswatini (PLE) has been running from pillar to post trying to hold onto the only competition being played– the MTN league– at the same time ensuring their members stay alive in a financially-draining environment.

Mbabane Swallows President Bishop Bheki Lukhele

It has been worse than trying to fit square pegs in round holes. The few thousands of Emalangeni the EFA gave the PLE to assist its members – teams – does not even cover expenses for a month because the three big teams spend close to E400 000 a single month each. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic turned our lives into a nightmare, football teams in eSwatini struggled to stay afloat and relied heavily on gate-collections. But even the gate collections do not cover half of the huge costs of running a team in the country. This then begs the question: what’s the whole point of owning a team in the country? What are those currently in charge of the teams really looking for?

Besides the fame and the rare-as-hen’s-tooth opportunity of brushing shoulders with a person of no less stature than His Majesty King Mswati III, who often graces Cup finals, there is no discernable or verifiable reason why these gentlemen funding the teams continue to shell out millions of their money to keep these traditional teams alive.

Many have even suggested soccer is an easy way for money laundering activities. It would really be difficult to argue otherwise given the huge expenses that come with running a soccer club in the country. Others punt the ‘love of the game’ mantra though it falls short when the financial implications are as unsustainable as it is right now.

So dire is the situation that already some of the club owners are considering stepping down which could lead to a lonely road to the cemetery for many a team. The country’s inaugural league winners, Milling Hotspurs director Irvin Munro has already indicated he cannot sustain the E50 000 monthly expense of running the club.

What then do you make of Swallows, Wanderers and Highlanders whose team directors spend an average of E400 000 per month? Flamboyant Mbabane Highlanders Managing Director Ally Kgomongwe has also raised some pertinent points on the acute financial challenges of running a team in eSwatini especially in the COVID-19 pandemic era.

Mbabane Highlanders Managing Director Ally Kgomongwe

It is extremely difficult to run a team in eSwatini. Right now there is only one competition where you can win E1.3 million yet in my case, I have spent close to E4 million in a season. Even if you were to win the league, it doesn’t cover even half of your costs. It does not make any business sense,” the boisterous Highlanders Managing Director opines. Quite poignant!

But that is the quandary eSwatini football is in right now and the future looks bleak as deadly COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause havoc on all sectors of society.

While Mbabane Swallows President Bishop Bheki Lukhele has not really complained about the huge costs involved in running the club, the team’s management, behind-the-scenes, is tacitly effecting some cost-cutting measures which include trimming the squad to a manageable level.

The other member of the country’s Big Three, Manzini Wanderers financial challenges are well documented even after the arrival of Mpumalanga based businessman Cedric Mathata who, by the way, is yet to be officially unveiled to the club supporters. Unpaid salaries, players’ strikes and mounting debts have been associated with the country’s arguably most fervently supported side. Financially-limping since the demise of Henry ‘Shushu’ Mthethwa, the ‘Weslians’ have not won any trophy since clinching the season opener, the EswatiniTelecom Charity Cup on July 31, 2005.

Manzini Wanderers

With the eSwatini football completely dominated by the security forces teams, Royal Leopard, Young Buffaloes and Green Mamba aided by government funding, it remains to be seen how deep are the pockets of the three individuals, Ally Kgomongwe, Bishop Bheki Lukhele and Cedric Mathata in trying to keep these traditional clubs alive in the COVID-19 era. Could there be inexplicable underlying factors driving these men to continue throwing millions of Emalangeni into the bottomless pit that is eSwatini football?

Only time will tell.