NOTTINGHAM Forest fullback Tendayi Darikwa and his three fellow Diaspora products finally donned the Zimbabwe jersey last week, although their maiden foray back in the land of their ancestors did not bring the immediate football fortunes many had anticipated.
BY SIMBA MUSHATI
Zimbabwe lost 1-0 to Lesotho in the trio’s first outing, with a subsequent 3-1 defeat in Namibia three days later further spoiling the mood. Some were even left wondering whether the recruitment of Diaspora talent would really transform a team which has known only failure in most of their three-and-a-half decades of international football.
Granted, it would be naive to read too much into results here, with Zimbabwe having played two matches inside three days in an ill-crafted programme which left little room for even the barest of preparations.
The continuing absence of a substantive head coach has not helped. Zifa technical director Wilson Mutekede has continued leading the team on a caretaker basis. On the upside though, the ice has been broken and the Diaspora quartet had the chance to familiarise themselves with their new teammates and environment.
If Darikwa, Admiral Muskwe, Macauley Bonne and Kundai Benyu are selected for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier away to Congo in March, they will come without the anxiety that comes with being in an entirely new environment.
And then the question of exactly what value they are capable of bringing to the Warriors project will begin to be genuinely addressed as Zimbabwe push for a second successive appearance at the Afcon finals.
Darikwa, for his part, has little doubt as to the nature of his mission here: “I have come here to win, I want to win,” was the 25-year-old’s vow upon arrival at the Robert Mugabe International Airport. “We are going to the Africa Cup of Nations. We have to qualify. It’s nice to be here.”
To focus merely on the four and their immediate task is to lose the bigger picture though. There is a broad initiative already underway to identify every Zimbabwean player of note around the globe, bring them into the system early, and reap the rewards in future.
It is the brainchild of Team Zimbabwe UK, whose CEO Marshal Gore says he has identified around 65 such names over the past few years and continues to do so.
“There is a lot of talent in the Diaspora, and the process we have enables us to develop a relationship with those players at a young age, which is very important. We have a lot of guys that are playing for reputable academies in the UK and elsewhere,” Gore, who is also the chairman of the African Football Association (UK), told KweséESPN this week.
The African Football Association organises the African Nations Cup UK, and Zimbabwe won this year’s Under-17 edition to make it two in a row. Other countries with a strong Diaspora community who participated in the event include Nigeria, Morocco, Ghana and guest nation Brazil.
“Our goal is to promote grassroots football development in the Diaspora and support member countries to harvest their Diaspora talent and introduce them to their national teams,” Gore added.
He said Zimbabwe’s performances at the African Nations Cup UK is ample proof that quality players are coming up, and he hopes Zimbabwe can learn from countries like Nigeria to start incorporating Diaspora players into national structures at junior level.
Gore has high regard for the Northampton duo of Seth Patrick and Shama Bango, Burnley’s Tinashe Chikwanha, as well as 18-year-old midfielder Wilson Chingoka, among others.
The emergence of the Diaspora as a source for top talent is a refreshing development for Zimbabwe, who for varying reasons have struggled to match fellow African countries in the production of quality players. For now though, Zimbabwe has to be content with the four who were here for the two friendlies. There still is some tremendous potential within that group.
Teenagers Benyu and Muskwe look genuine prospects. Muskwe is yet to break into the first team at Leicester, but four caps and two goals for the England Under-18 team means he can represent a significant upgrade on Zimbabwe’s current striking options.
The 19-year-old has played eight matches for Leicester’s Under-23s so far this term, with three goals to his name.
On the other hand, Benyu’s quality has never been in doubt ever since he was promoted to the Ipswich first team at 16 in 2015. He did go low after that early recognition as he struggled for game-time, but he managed to reclaim the limelight with some superb displays during a loan spell at Aldershot Town last season, prompting interest from some top clubs in England.
He settled for Scottish giants Celtic, where he won over boss Brendon Roger’s attention after just a few preseason appearances.
“He has come in and played with a nice little edge,” Rogers said in remarks carried in the Scotsman. “He is competitive and has confidence. How he receives the ball is very good. He is an attacking player who wants to get goals and he’s quite exciting.”
Benyu could prove a worthy edition to the midfield and his potential combination with Belgium-based Marvellous Nakamba is something to look forward to. With Knowledge Musona and Khama Billiat also in the mix, Zimbabwe can have a forward line of exceptional class.
The England-based players’ first foray back home certainly did not go according to plan, with poor organisation on the part of Zifa which saw them spend much of their time on the plane rather than on the training pitch.
Gore, however, remains optimistic: “It was a very good experience for them, they liked it,” he said. “Obviously it will take time to blend in but they are all happy to come back if called up again next time, so that’s positive.”