BY MUNYARADZI MADZOKERE
HAVING been credited for nurturing some of the country’s brightest football stars in recent years, headlined by current Warriors captain Knowledge Musona and the talismanic Khama Billiat, Aces Youth Soccer Academy has embarked on a reinvention, which they believe will churn out football players capable of exceeding the duo’s exploits.
The star duo of Musona and Billiat, who are currently plying their trade in Belgium and South Africa respectively, have given so much for Zimbabwe in recent years, but are fast approaching the twilight of their careers and may leave a void difficult to fill in the Warriors set-up when they finally hang their boots.
The renowned Aces Youth Soccer Academy, which was established in 2000 by veteran Swiss football coach Marc Duvillard and football administrator Nigel Munyati, is easily one of the biggest soccer academies in the country.
Initially the project was never about football talent alone, but to help disadvantaged children in the community and introduce the concept of sport as a social intervention tool.
But since 2016 the academy decided to go all out in identifying and nurturing the best football talent in the country and hopes to begin to reap the rewards soon.
“The current group we have has players that can exceed Musona and Billiat. That’s not to say Musona and Billiat are not good, but one of the things you must always look for is improvement and there is no limit to talent development,” Aces academy co-founder and executive director Munyati told The Sports Hub.
“Musona and Billiat achieved what they did with the little we had, but now we have more resources that we can use to develop players better. I have no doubt we are going to produce players better than the two.
“We have players today that are at a level higher than where Musona and Billiat were at the same age. The challenge is how we continue to improve them such that by the time they are 18 or 19 they are way above,” he added.
In two decades Aces Academy has churned out a lot of top players who have excelled locally and internationally.
Apart from Musona and Billiat, other players to emerge from the institution include Abbas Amidu, George Chigova, Donovan Benard, Eric Chipeta, Silas Songani and Lincoln Zvasiya.
Players such as Walter Musona, Wisdom Mutasa, Spain-based Martin Mapisa, Abubakar Moffat, Emmanuel Jalai, Nicholas Guyo, Jarisson Selemani and Kenneth Pasuwa, to mention a few, learnt the trade at the academy.
All in all, the academy has produced 92 professional footballers both male and female since 2009.
In fact, four players in the Mighty Warriors squad that represented the country at Rio Olympics including Marjorie Nyaumwe, Sheila Makoto, Rufaro Machingura, and Eunice Chibanda, were nurtured by the academy.
“Over the last four years, we have taken a different trajectory. “We realised we needed to change our approach to recruitment. If you look at the current under-13s and 15s, there is amazing talent because we are now focusing on talent.
“They are more talented than the older age groups we have currently. Our focus is now on football intelligence. We realise African players don’t go far largely because they don’t have football intelligence. We expected them all to play in Europe.
“We have had to let go about 50 – 60 kids in the process, but it also means the 60 who remain will get our full attention. We are already seeing the rewards because 80% of our graduates are getting placements every year,” Munyati said.
Aces Youth Soccer Academy has four players in Spain, namely Nicholas Guyo, Kundai Mukweva, Mapisa and Abubakar Moffat, while Blessing Sarupinda is on trials in Portugal.
The academy has also struck a partnership Eaglesvale School with the academy kids now enrolled at the school.
“We have decided to enrol our kids at Eaglesvale, it’s a new partnership. We want to produce kids who are talented in football and school. But the challenge is that it is difficult to motivate kids to focus on school because they’ve an example of Musona and Khama who did not do well in their studies,” Munyati said.
The dream for the academy is to establish a world-renowned football institution in the country where children will study while playing football.
But the efforts to build the institution were frustrated more than a decade ago when the founders bought land in Manyame South, from which they were evicted soon after construction began.
“We had bought land in 2008, in Manyame South, but we were messed by the rural district council as it turned out that the land they had sold us was not theirs. “We had started work on the site and one day an eviction notice came.
“We are disappointed because by now we should have built that institution. Right now we are talking to the Ministry of Local Government because we haven’t got back our money in all these years. But I think by the end of the year we will have gotten the land and then next year we start developing. In five year’s time we should have our institution complete,” Munyati said.
Aces Youth Soccer Academy enrols talented 12 and 13 year old kids and develops them for six to seven years.
The players spend the final two years at the academy’s club-house in Waterfalls so that they get enough nutrition there by having five meals a day.
The kids are also taught IT fundamentals and they also attend conversation classes for them to know how to present themselves as well as communicate in English.
Munyati, a former Zifa presidential aspirant, spoke of the potential he sees in Zimbabwean football.
“Zimbabwe has enough talent to be successful on the international stage. I see our national team being able to reach the last four at Afcon or play in the finals in the next few years.
“I also want to see more of our players feature for top European teams such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Manchester City soon. We ask our kids to write their dreams and most of them want to play for Europe’s big teams. All we need to do is to help them achieve that,” he said.