A NEW headache is brewing for Zimbabwean football as the lack of junior development structures is set to come under the spotlight again following the retirement of Warriors skipper, Knowledge Musona.
The 31-year-old called time on his decade long-career, just six months after another national team talisman, Khama Billiat, had also called it quits.
This also comes as the majority of the national team players that represented Zimbabwe at the last AFCON tournament, are now between their late 20s and early-30s.
The Warriors squad, which had players being recycled over the last 10 years, is in desperate need for renewal so that when the FIFA suspension is lifted, Zimbabwe will be good to go.
The big question that could beg for answers now is who will be able to fill Musona and Billiat's boots, with the same impact that the duo had in the last few years?
ZIFA have often come under fire for the lack of a clear development strategy. Players have been popping up haphazardly, without proper coordination from the association.
Musona and Billiat were products of the famed Aces Youth Football Academy and for over a decade, they have carried the nation's hopes on their shoulders as the star players for the Zimbabwe national football team.
But who will be able to fill their shoes?
Former Zimbabwe Junior Football League (ZJFL) chairman, Zivanai "Man ZIFA" Chiyangwa, yesterday painted a grim picture of the prospects.
"It's sad our football had to go through years of stagnation in terms of proper development systems. Now we have so many academies but most of them lack capacitation both in terms of equipment and the syllabus.
"Anyone who manages to buy two soccer balls and a set of uniforms can wake up and say I have a football academy. That is why we are not seeing the products. We have lost the scope because of lack of leadership at the top.
"ZIFA should be leading and co-ordinating these development activities. I am sure it will take us many years, until we go back to the basics and revamp junior football leagues from as early as Under-10s.
"I worked with Musona from a young age, during my days as national Under-17 team manager. I am also proud that he was a product of the ZJFL, which I was chairman of, before it was disbanded by ZIFA," said Chiyangwa.
Musona himself also had the same worry as he hinted in his interview after the Warriors' elimination at the 2021 AFCON.
"We need to develop our grassroots football; to develop from the Under-17's, Under-20's and Under-23's to prepare our national team for our next assignments.
"Some of us, maybe in a few years' time, are going to stop and we have some guys growing up and trying to maintain the level of Zimbabwean football.
"I am really optimistic that there should be something to be done for the development of the game," said Musona.
Rodwell Dhlakama, the man who is credited with discovering Musona during the NASH Under-20 tournament in 2005, is also skeptical about Zimbabwe unearthing a similar gem in the near future.
"I'm not saying he (Musona) is irreplaceable but as a nation, we need to pull up our socks. Knowledge possessed rare qualities as a player and team leader. He was respected by his teammates at every level because of that.
"Looking at the current demographics of our (senior national) team, I personally feel Musona still had something to offer in terms of proper integration of new members and clear succession plan in terms of captaincy," said Dhlakama. Musona, who made his debut for Zimbabwe in November 2010, has remained loyal to the national team cause in the last decade. He made 51 appearances and scored 24 goals.
Together with close friend Billiat, the experienced forward has played a big role in the Warriors team in the last few years when Zimbabwe hit a new record by qualifying for the AFCON finals three times in succession.
Musona has featured in the last three editions of AFCON that included the 2017 edition in Gabon, the 2019 finals in Egypt and now the delayed 2021 edition in Cameron.
He was the team captain at the last two editions. He has also played topflight football abroad after signing for Bundesliga side TSG Hoffenheim from South Africa's Kaizer Chiefs, as a 2-1year-old, before moving to Belgium and now Saudi Arabia.
"The football story of Musona is both interesting and emotional," said Dhlakama.
"It goes way back to 2005 at the NASH Under-20 tournament. He was just a young boy of 15 years but was playing for St. Erics of Norton in this Under-20 tournament.
"I think he was the youngest player and his qualities were quite exceptional for his age. He scored two brilliantly executed goals against us and that was enough to convince me that he was a good player who should be nurtured in a proper academy.
"So I recommended him to AYSA. Coincidentally, I was the NASH Under-20 coach as well as the national Zimbabwe Under-17 coach, and I also drafted him in the two teams despite his age.
"With other players like Billiat, Qadr Amini, Erick Chipeta, George Chigova and Lincoln Zvasiya, we had a strong nucleus for the Young Warriors and we were a formidable outfit.
"With these guys, we did well at the Coca-Cola tri-nations, we won the COSAFA Under-20 in 2007, the Zone VI Games and qualified for the Africa Youth Championships held in Algeria.
"To achieve this, you need proper structure. I concur there are a lot of academies but no coordination and no support. Talented players should be identified from these academies and given the support and platform to refine their talents.
"Under-17 and Under-20 leagues need to be in place up to regional and national level. We shouldn't expect miracles at senior level when we have not cultivated the talent from a young age," said Dhlakama.
Musona made his breakthrough when he was spotted by Kaizer Chiefs scouts when the Zimbabwe Under-20 soccer team lifted the COSAFA championship back in 2007.
The then 18-year-old football wonder kid rose from the bench and hammered a memorable hattrick that sank hosts Amajita in South Africa. The 3-0 win ensured that Zimbabwe were crowned COSAFA Under-20 champions.
The current generation headlined by the likes of Marvelous Nakamba and Kuda Mahachi is also approaching twilight and there are remnants like Jordan Zemura, Kundai Benyu and Martin Mapisa, who were part of the recent AFCON tournament.
There is still a silver lining for Zimbabwean football as a new crop of young footballers, fronted by the likes of Bill Antonio, English Cullum-Brown, Panashe Mutimbanyoka, Tapiwa Mandinyenya, Tawanda Maswanhise, Ethan Kachosa and Tivonge Rushesha, is coming up but are all yet to be tested.
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