Former Barcelona stars Patrick Kluivert and Edgar Davids joined Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe on stage last Saturday at a political rally, drawing sharp criticism from government opponents.
Davids and Kluivert were pictured alongside Mugabe, 93, at a youth rally for the ruling ZANU-PF party in the southern town of Gwanda, in what local media described as a “surprise appearance”.
Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980, and he is often criticized for brutal repression of his opponents, election rigging, and his country’s economic collapse, AFP reports.
The president, who is in increasingly frail health, is due to stand in elections next year that could see him hold onto power until he is nearly 100.
The footballers’ trip was led by Spanish event manager Rayco Garcia, who said Davids and Kluivert were helping organise a match for the Barcelona Legends team in Zimbabwe in November.
“My job is to bring all the legends of Barcelona here, the likes of Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, Juliano Belletti, Kluivert, Davids… and to play a team of legends from Zimbabwe,” Garcia told the local press.
“I think that is going to give hope to the youth while promoting talent in the country and bringing a piece of Europe to Zimbabwe.”
The state-owned Herald newspaper on Saturday ran a photo of former Dutch internationals Kluivert and Davids presenting a replica Barcelona shirt with the name “R.G. Mugabe” on it to vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa.
The paper said that Mnangagwa would give the shirt to President Mugabe, along with another shirt for Mugabe’s wife Grace, which had the name “Amai” (“Mother”) on it.
Kluivert was quoted by the Herald – which is seen as a mouthpiece of Mugabe’s regime – as saying, “Zimbabwe is a great country, I think that has been ruled very good, but it has a bad (image) in Europe.”
The three visitors held meetings with Mnangagwa and sports minister Makhosini Hlongwane in the capital Harare on Friday.
The privately-owned Standard newspaper, which printed a picture of the trio with Mugabe, said they had made a brief appearance at the rally on Saturday after attending the opening of a local community information centre.
“They should be ashamed of themselves,” Obert Gutu, spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change opposition party, told AFP.
“They seemed to be endorsing a despotic tyrant. I used to support these stars during their illustrious careers. Many people are offended.”
Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party has been accused of routinely using violence, intimidation, and fraud to ensure Mugabe’s election victories.