Zimbabwe may have lost a game, but they won the admiration of the fans. Though the tournament newcomers went down 3-1 to Canada in their second outing at the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016 in Sao Paulo on Saturday, that did not stop the people of Brazil from taking them firmly to their hearts and supporting them as if they were their own.
“This is the first time that we’re taking part at an event like this, and when you bear that in mind, I think we did well and did our very best,” said the African side’s left-back Sheila Makoto. “All I can do is thank the Brazilian fans for giving us so much support. It really, really surprised us. I would never have imagined it.”
The city, the largest in South America, is home to three of the country’s best-supported clubs: Sao Paulo FC, Palmeiras and Corinthians, and it is the latter’s stadium that is being used to stage the matches the city is hosting at the Olympic tournament. Ticket sales for Saturday’s game were 42,281 – 96 per cent of the stadium’s capacity – with the fans, hailing from all over the world, giving the Zimbabweans their wholehearted support.
The Africans have played both their games to date at the Corinthians Arena, where they have had the fans cheering them before the referees have even sounded their whistle, and where the fans have raised the roof in celebrating the two goals they have scored to date. The first was a consolation strike in a 6-1 defeat to Germany, while the second came five minutes from time against the Canadians, courtesy of attacking midfielder Mavis Chirandu.
It was definitely worth celebrating and I wanted the fans to go crazy with me.
Chirandu celebrated by whirling her two forefingers around her head, as if she had taken leave of her senses, which would be a fairly accurate description of the fans’ reaction to her late strike. “I was pretty excited, wasn’t I?” she told FIFA.com afterwards. “It was my first ever match at the Olympics and my first goal too. I didn’t play in the opening game and I’ve never played in front of such a big crowd at a stadium like this before. It was definitely worth celebrating and I wanted the fans to go crazy with me.”
The 21-year-old Chirandu has a surprising life story to tell. She grew up at the SOS Children's Village in Bindura, 88 kilometres from the capital Harare, having been found abandoned at a roadside, at the age of one, by a good Samaritan. “I don’t have any words to describe the man who saved me. By taking me to the shelter he gave me my life and a family.”
Team-mate Makoto has started a family of her own with her husband Davidson, and is the proud mother of Jaylen, her three-year son. Both of them are back home in Harare, willing her on to success with the rest of the country. Unlike many of her colleagues in the Zimbabwe team, Makoto does not need to divide her time between playing the game she loves and working as a prison warder or a journalist. Looking after her little boy is a hands-on job, however.
“It’s not easy to be a mother and a footballer at the same time, but I can’t complain,” said the full-back. “I spend my mornings with him, and I do a bit of housework too. In the afternoons I leave him with his grandmother and I go training. My husband is my number one fan. I thought my career was over when I gave birth to our first son, but he has always encouraged me.”
It is hard to imagine that even if the people of Brazil knew more about the life stories of intrepid Zimbabweans they could give them any more support than they are already doing. Whatever the case may be, the Africans are just hoping they enjoy the same enthusiastic goodwill in Salvador, where they take on Australia on Tuesday. And whatever happens there, they have already enjoyed a very memorable Olympic debut. “This is obviously a great experience for all of us,” said Makoto. “All we can hope for now is that we get the same support there. We like having the Brazilians on our side.”