Something changed, and in the last three years South African clubs turned their backs on Zimbabwean players.
Several players — including the most celebrated in the country — went for trials down south only to be told they were not good enough.
Why Zimbabweans were no longer making the grade in Mzansi generated intense debate.
Out of desperation, some Zimbabwean players went club hunting in the lower leagues of the neighbouring country where their desperation was exploited in one way or the other, the worst being what one former player with a Mvela Golden League club termed “slave wages”.
This week, South African clubs revived their romance with Zimbabwean footballers after four Caps United players were signed up by three South African PSL clubs.
Zimbabwean clubs’ impressive record in African club competitions seems to have changed perception in favour of the players again.
While wheels often fall off on South African clubs in Africa, Zimbabweans field clubs that constantly take on the big clubs on the continent at their pomp.
Yet South Africans, who normally don’t treat African competitions with the respect they ought to be accorded, never really took note of the strengths of Zimbabwean teams until their clubs fell victim in the last two years.
Last year, small Harare club Monomotapa booted out Ajax Cape Town, with all their glamour and money, out of the African Champions League.
And then last week Caps United comfortably sailed through to the second round of the Caf Confederations Cup at the expense of Moroka Swallows.
So there is still something good about these Zimbabweans after all, the South African clubs’ presidents must have said.
In the wake of Caps’ success, Ajax Cape Town snapped trickery winger Tafadzwa Rusike from under the noses of Moroka Swallows.
“Yes, we were very interested in signing Rusike but he has gone to Ajax after he impressed us in both the first and second leg of the CAF competition,” said a disappointed Swallows coach Zeca Marques.
“However good news though is that we have managed to secure the signature of (Oscar) Machapa who has already started training with us.”
The biggest news though was prolific striker Nyasha Mushekwi’s move to former champions Mamelodi Sundowns alongside compatriot, defender Method Mwanjali.
Prior to joining Pretoria-based Sundowns, Mushekwi had been at the centre of media speculation across South Africa, with some newspapers and online publications having prematurely reported him to have signed for Soweto giants Kaizer Chiefs.
Of course, there are those who will argue that South African clubs’ reignited interest in local players was pioneered by Kaizer Chiefs. Amakhosi — as Chiefs are known — added three more Zimbabweans at the beginning of the 2009-10 season in the form of Thomas Sweswe, Zhaimu Jambo and Knowledge Musona. Musona in particular, has been a revelation at Naturena, even being spoken of as heir-apparent to the great Peter Ndlovu.
But if you consider that clubs had to shove for Rusike and Mushekwi’s signatures when at the beginning of the 2009-10 South African PSL season they were deemed not fit for their league during trials, it is proof that success in Africa
has done the trick insofar as getting the better Zimbabwean footballers out of their misery at home.