Liverpool — From the moment that the Zimbabwe Gems entered the M&S Bank Arena in Liverpool, they have been the talk of the town.
Lloyd Makunde and his side have the netball world enraptured and have made a World Cup debut to remember.
On the first day of the tournament, vibrant singing and clapping could be heard echoing through the bowels of the M&S Bank Arena. With it came a wave of energy and effervescence as the Gems made their way to court.
Makunde’s side made an entrance like no other and it was not to be a one-off as the singing and dancing of the players has been matched by their fans in the stands and fan parks.
Throughout this competition, the Gems have gone about their business with a vivacity that has been matched by no other nation.
They are the only debutants in the tournament and have shown what a joy it is to represent your country on the greatest of stages. They have drawn everyone in with their conduct, on and off the court and they face the realistic prospect of a top-eight finish as they prepare to face Malawi today.
An opening 79-49 victory over Sri Lanka set their tone as they managed to keep calm in the face of taking their first steps on netball’s biggest stage.
They introduced their passionate fans to the world audience, played their own distinctive style of netball and even contained the 6’10” shooter, Tharjini Sivalingam. In short, it was a debut to build from and build from it they did.
After that the Australian Diamonds proved to be too much, but in prevailing over Northern Ireland they made yet another statement.
“You look at Zimbabwe and they had trust between every single player on that court,” noted Northern Ireland coach Dan Ryan after his side were overhauled by the Gems in the final minutes.
“They backed themselves and they won, full credit to them, they were amazing.”
The Gems’ only losses to date have come at the hands of the Aussies and the Silver Ferns, and both are already assured of their semi-final place. Ask any player, fan, coach or pundit at this World Cup about Makunde’s team only losing to those two sides and none will think any less of them for it.
Instead, they will tell you how they asked questions of them, they will talk to you about Zimbabwe’s passionate fans and they will talk of the confidence with which they attacked their last match against Barbados to secure a 25-goal victory.
Afterwards, Makunde said that he expected his team to win and his players highlighted that too with their calm acknowledgement of the 66-41 result.
Makunde has coached the Gems for the past two decades and although he has an incredibly relaxed presence his passion for the sport, and his belief in his team runs deep.
“I knew that we were going to win this, it was ours to lose,” he said.
“I know what my players are capable of doing so I was so confident that we were going to win. I can say that we are raising our game and we are going to be one of the big guns in a few years to come. We want fifth/sixth/seven, somewhere there. That’s our goal now. We know that everyone is beatable. It’s sport, anything can happen especially during a World Cup.”
Wherever the Zimbabwe Gems end up finishing in terms of the final standings at this Netball World Cup, their campaign should be regarded as an unmitigated success.
It’s a campaign that not only brought jubilation to this competition, but is one that has set a platform from which netball may well grow from in Zimbabwe, something that Sky Sports’ Tamsin Greenway is keen to see happen.
“There’s no reason why they can’t be [a big gun] and why some of these African nations can’t rise to the top,” said Greenway on court at the M&S Bank Arena.
“We’ve seen the talent and for me it’s about how they nurture that over the next four years. That’s the big thing. We saw the Malawi Queens burst onto the scene, we saw the Uganda She Cranes and now we’re seeing it from Zimbabwe.
“There’s no doubt that there are so many athletic and smart players in those groups, it’s how they can continue to do that and how they can come to competitions.”
When the tournament started on July 12, the Zimbabwe Gems were ranked 13th in the International Netball Federation standings. When the next rankings are announced on July 30 shortly after the tournament’s denouement, that position will change.
On top of that, their work in Liverpool may see some more of their players being given opportunities to ply their trade overseas and that is another factor that could accelerate their development leading towards South Africa 2023.
Players like defender Felisitus Kwangwa have made a huge impression and there is already talk of interest from the Vitality Netball Superleague.
Aside from the rules which only permit players from the top 12 to be recruiting by Superleague franchises, there are further questions on how can the sport be supported and funded at home? Will it be given the resources it needs and what is the true depth of talent like back in Zimbabwe?
“In terms of the 12 that the Gems brought [to Liverpool], they’re strong,” former England Rose Pamela Cookey notes.
“I don’t know what it’s like back home coming through the development so it’s how those systems are put in place, how are they growing their young players coming through?
“We know that they have done a great job so far in getting to this point, can they now push on with that momentum and keep improving and bringing players through their ranks?”
Only time will tell when it comes to the support for the sport in Zimbabwe, its funding and whether the infrastructure in Zimbabwe can be nurtured to drive this clearly extremely talented and passionate nation forwards?
The Gems secured their place in Liverpool last August through the Regional Qualifier — Africa and the only side that they lost to was the She Cranes.
With a wave of energy behind them and their inspirational passion, you would not be far wrong in believing Makunde’s side could continue this dream Netball World Cup debut with further victories and at the moment could still finish in an unbelievable fifth place.
If that happens then prepare for the foundations of the arena to shake because the Zimbabwe Gems’ fans are loud and incredibly proud of the netballing nation that everyone else has fallen in love with too.