State of Zimbabwe junior football

HARARE - Grassroots development is usually an integral part of any successful sporting country.

Without the foundations, top level football would crumble as talented young players struggle to find a place to showcase their footballing skills.

Grassroots football gives countless youngsters a chance to learn the basics of the game while preparing them for the demands of the top flight game.

Most successful football countries today have invested heavily in young players in the hope that they mature and develop into elite players.

Four-time world champions Germany are one good example of a nation that has taken football development to greater lengths and the rewards are there for everyone to see. 

“In 2004, German football was down. We took decisive steps,” Germany coach Joachim Low once remarked after taking his country to the summit of world football in Brazil 2014.

“We said, ‘We have to invest more in the education so we are technically better’. This is the result of that work, beginning with Jurgen Klinsmann.”

In the 1980s and 90s Zimbabwe used to boast of proper grassroots football structures with traditional giants Dynamos, Highlanders and CAPS United leading the way.

Dynamos have a proud history of producing some of the best talent from their juniors such as Chamunoda Musanhu, Memory Mucherahohwa, Kelvin Mushangazhike, Desmond Maringwa and Murape Murape, amongst a host of names.

Current DeMbare coach Lloyd Chigowe and Malcolm Fourie were stalwarts of this DeMbare junior programme and responsible for the large number of these players’ growth.

Talented Dynamos junior players like Richard Choruwa, Edmore Mashiri, Esau Amisi, Leo Kurauzvione and Norman Maroto were all enrolled at Churchill High School with the club footing their tuition fees. 

For Highlanders such names like the Ndlovu brothers (Madinda, Adam and Peter) will quickly come to mind from those who came through the famed Bosso junior development programme headed by the legendary Ali Baba.

Bosso also nurtured the likes of Johannes Ngodzo, Siza Khoza, Gift Lunga Jnr and Snr from their junior development programme to become household names in the Premier League.

Every weekend, thousands of fans would fill-up Barbourfields Stadium to watch their home-grown talent dazzle in the famous black and white Bosso jersey.  

CAPS United are famed for producing such players like the late Stanley “Sinyo” Ndunduma, the late Joel Shambo, Stanford “Stix” Mtizwa, Thomas Sweswe, Ashley Rambanepasi, Leonard Tsipa, Cheche Billiat, Joe Mugabe and Silver Chigwenje among others.

In the 90s, the Makepekepe articulated team bus used to roam all the streets of ghettos like Mbare, Highfield, Mufakose and Glen Norah picking up young players before ferrying them to Raylton Sports Club where the late legendary forward and coach Freddy Mkwesha and various other notable coaches would work with the young players.  

While the traditional giants were leading the way, there were other clubs like the now defunct Darryn T, who played a crucial role in nurturing talents such as Norman Mapeza, Lloyd Chitembwe, Stewart Murisa, Alois Bunjira, Shingi Kawondera, Musareka Jenitala and Elliot Matsika.

Polish coach Wieslaw Grabowski was the brains behind Darryn T as he mainly focused on nurturing talent from Chitungwiza together with the late Never Gombera. 

In Highfield, Black Aces were responsible for launching the careers  of Tapuwa Kapini, Mike Bingadadi, Tinashe Nengomasha, Nqobizitha Ncube, Francis Jeyman, Cliffton Kadurira, Maronga Nyangela, David Sengu and Ernest Chirambadare as well as the Mugeyi twins, Wilfred and William, the late Andrew Chifamba, Vusi Laher, Itai Kapini, Emmanuel Nyahuma, Butler Masango and Alex Munawa.

Everyday young players from Highfield and surrounding areas would converge at Zimbabwe Grounds where they would be trained by the Aces junior coaches.

While he never got to play at the highest level, Malcolm Laher together with Swiss expatriate coach Mark Duvillard were responsible for developing most of the Aces junior players.

Zimbabwe Saints had their own fair share of success with their juniors which saw the emergence of the legendary Ronald “Gidiza” Sibanda, Muzondiwa Mugadza, Chipo Tsodzo, Mtshumayeli Moyo, Mthulisi Maphosa and Butholezwe Mahachi.

At their inception in 1983, Black Rhinos were the pioneer “moneybags” of Zimbabwe football backed by the financial resources of the late Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander Solomon Mujuru.

The club started by snapping up all the top talent in the country; a model that delivered two league titles in 1984 and 1987.

Later on, Chauya Chipembere abandoned this philosophy and also vigorously started to nurture their own talent with their big blue Mercedes bus also roaming Harare ghettos ferrying young players to their training base at One Commando Barracks.

This is how the club unearthed the likes of Rowan Nenzou, Ephraim Mazarura, Shadreck Jimu, Rueben Mhlanga, Menard Mupera and Nesbert Saruchera, Lewis Kutinyu and Brighton Chandisaita.    

Mining towns like Mhangura, Zvishavane, Renco, Hwange and Arcturus were also a breeding ground for some of the best football talent to grace the domestic game and the national team.

During those days the Zimbabwe national team became a force to be reckoned with on the continent beating African giants like Cameroon, Egypt among others at ease. 

Even at junior level regional and international tournaments, the Young Warriors were no easy pushovers.

However, somewhere along the line, Zimbabwe lost it as most of these junior teams were disbanded.

Grassroots football was put on the back burner as clubs started to dedicate lesser resources to their junior teams. Eventually, junior football started to dye a slow, painful but avoidable death.

The Zimbabwe Under-20 side has failed to progress beyond the group stages of the Cosafa Under-20 Championship for the past three years.

This is a tournament Zimbabwe used to dominate with reaching the final the only acceptable outcome. 

It only appears that a handful of individuals that have a passion for seeing junior football grow are the only ones still trying to keep the fire burning.

The likes of Aces Youth Soccer Academy (Aysa), Bantu Rovers, Friendly Academy, Total Football Academy, BN Academy, Harare City and Catholic Saints are some of the few clubs that have remained afloat.  

In trying to locate where the country has got it wrong in the previous years in as far as junior football is concerned Bunjira, who now runs his Albun Academy in Harare, apparently becomes emotional.

He puts the blame squarely on the doorstep of the Zimbabwe Football Association (Zifa) and the Premier Soccer League (PSL).

“This problem started some time back when we sounded the warning bells but the powers that be were not listening. Our standard of football has gone down while others have been improving,” Bunjira told the Daily News on Sunday.

“A few years ago the men that took over football clubs in Zimbabwe and the men at the helm of both the PSL and Zifa decided to do away with junior football.”

Bunjira feels the current crop of football leadership in the country is not keen on investing in junior football.  

“I think it was at the time football clubs were taken over by people who didn’t have much knowledge about football structures and how stars are produced,” he said.

“That was the beginning of our downfall. For years, we didn’t have junior structures in Zimbabwe. In the first years it was not noticeable because we had a young generation playing at the time when they had been developed well in development structures.

“But as years went by, this generation started leaving football and replaced by a generation which never went through proper development. 

“It was always going to catch up with us when this generation populated the league. Now the problem is we don’t even have a future to look forward to.

Gone are the days when our national Under-20 team was comprised of boys that were already big names in the Premier League. As things stand our Under-20 team is selected from high school football.

“To make matters worse, high school football has also deteriorated with Nash following suit and adopting a tournament format of playing football where schools meet on one day and play a tournament.

“That is no way of developing talent, especially when that is actually our reservoir.”

Bunjira feels the current system has made it difficult to discover talent.

“It’s not because today’s players lack talent, no. They are badly let down by the system. I started playing organised football when I was six in the area zones,” Bunjira recounts.

“By the time I was Under-12 for Hotspurs Juniors, my talent was already out there. My graduation to Darryn T Under-16 and then reserve side and then first team was so visible. 

“Back then, all clubs had similar structures. Star junior players graduated easily. We all went through the proper mill.”

The former CAPS United forward is of the idea that Zifa should take a leading role in resuscitating the grassroots programmes.

At the time when most clubs abandoned their development structures, they cited the declining Zimbabwe economy associated with hyperinflation and a lack of sponsorship from the corporate world.

However, Bunjira views this as a lame defence from the clubs that are failing to think outside the box.  

“Let’s not hide behind the economy, it’s just an excuse. There is a serious lack of will and to some extent lack of knowledge of the importance of development,” he said.

“The PSL, football clubs, Zifa, schools and the ministry of Sport should come up with a plan. The current situation cannot be allowed to continue any longer if we dream of being a football powerhouse one day.

“The lack of quality also affects attendance and keeps corporates away from football. We also need to start taking football as a business and not as a hobby. 

“By business, I don’t mean gate takings but proper business with a proper business model taking advantage of the fan base.”

After the demise of Black Aces, Duvillard went into a partnership with Nigel Munyati to establish Aysa.

Over the years, the academy has been at the forefront of producing some of the best local talent in current Warriors captain Knowledge Musona, Khama Billiat, George Chigova, Abbas Amidu and Darryl Nyandoro.    

Despite his passion for the game and nurturing junior players, Duvillard is a concerned man with the current state of junior football.

“Our academy is fortunate in that we got support from outside the country. Here we don’t get anything. The situation is even made worse because we don’t even get money for transfers of our players,” the Swiss coach told the Daily News on Sunday.

“We don’t have the Under-14, 15, 16, 18 and 20 leagues. There is nothing happening at national level regards the mentioned age groups. Fifa has money for development programmes which should be used but we are not getting anything.

“We have no national support for the grassroots football. Zifa needs to change completely the way they do things and start programmes or else our football will collapse.”

Just like Bunjira, the former Black Aces coach feels Zimbabwe is lagging behind  other countries in the region and on the continent. 

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