HARARE – While debate over the Warriors’ poor performance at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) rages on, Zimbabwean football continues to lose gifted youngsters to better organised countries.
Zimbabwe were knocked out of the on-going Afcon tournament in the group stages following humbling defeats to Senegal and Tunisia while only picking up a single point in the 2-2 draw against Algeria.
The country’s lack of a vibrant junior policy has been cited as one of the reasons why the Warriors dismally failed in Gabon.
At times, it was embarrassing to see the Warriors failing to execute basics like ball control, shooting and passing; aspects of the game which are taught when players are still in their formative years.
Many pundits have pointed to the fact that a majority of players now eventually making the grade into the national team did not receive the basic training required at a young age.
Some of the upcoming generation of Zimbabwean footballers, who have horned their skills in academies particularly in England, have opted to play for other countries due to the bottlenecks associated with acquiring a Zimbabwean passport. Everton’s Brendon Galloway has chosen to represent England while Macauley Bonne and Tendayi Darikwa had shown their interest to play for the Warriors but were restricted by the country’s stringent citizenship laws.
Although the Constitution allows for dual citizenship, in order to acquire a Zimbabwean passport, an individual still has to renounce one of their citizenships first.
The Zimbabwe Football Association (Zifa) should also be able to facilitate this process but it is not the case.
Another good example of a player affected by this scenario is the highly-rated midfielder Azriel Kalin Johnson, who has chosen to play for Malawi instead of Zimbabwe.
The 17-year-old son of former Warriors left back Allan Johnson, left the country last Thursday to enrol at the prestigious St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in New Jersey in the United States.
Prior to that, his father had spent the better part of last month fending off calls from Orlando Pirates and Mamelodi Sundowns scouts, who had been impressed by Azriel’s ability during last December’s PPC Cosafa Under-20 Championship in South Africa.
Johnson, who played for Arcadia and Motor Action, had hoped his son would choose to play for Zimbabwe but felt let down by the lack of co-operation by the local football authorities in resolving his citizenship status.
Johnson’s Malawian wife gave birth to Azriel in Blantyre in 1999 when the former Warriors defender was turning out for MTL Wanderers under Rahman Gumbo.
“My wish was always for my son to play for Zimbabwe but the process for him to acquire a local passport was just too long,” Johnson told the Daily News.
“When Malawi heard about his predicament shortly before the Cosafa Under-20 championships, they acted quickly to sort out his documents.
“They even treated him like a king and sent air tickets for him to fly to Malawi to join the team. That experience was wonderful for him and he quickly fell in love with Malawi.”
There is a reason why the Football Association of Malawi (Fam) officials quickly acted to draft the young Azriel into the Young Flames set up.
The young Johnson was nurtured at the Aces Youth Soccer Academy (AYSA), alongside the likes of Walter Musona and Wisdom Mutasa.
While still in Form 2 at Prince Edward School, Azriel was already playing in the Tigers first team together with Warriors goalkeeper Tatenda Mkuruva, forwards Tino Kadewere and Thomas Chideu.
Although he grew up playing on the wing, he soon developed into a central midfielder largely due to his huge frame and was highly-regarded by the coaching staff at AYSA.
Azriel has shown potential that he can develop into a good player in the future which is the reason why his family decided to send him to St. Benedict’s.
“The first option was for him to go to Denmark where Quincy Antipas’ team Hobro IK had decided to sign him into their academy but they first wanted him to go AmaZulu in South Africa until he had turned 18,” Johnson said.
“At the same time, scouts from Sundowns and Pirates had been impressed by his ability after watching him at the Cosafa tournament.
“At the end, we decided to go the American route because they offered him a full scholarship and their football programme is one of the best.”
Last year, St. Benedict’s finally saw the end of their 27-year run as state champions end when they lost the title to Pennington.
Jim Wandling’s side also went for two years without a defeat before going down 2-1 to Berkshire in September to bring their 36-undefeated run to an end.
Former US captain and Manchester United midfielder Claudio Reyna came through the St. Benedict’s football programme before breaking into the Major Soccer League.
Johnson is still hopeful that his son might reconsider his decision later one day and represent Zimbabwe.
“You never know what might happen with time. The good thing is that he only played for the junior team and he is yet to represent the senior team. Maybe he will revert back and want to play for Zimbabwe again,” he said.
“He would be turning 18 later this year and he will be a man old enough to make his own decisions and with him moving to America, he might also think of playing for the US in the future.”
However, the only lesson that can be drawn from Azriel’s story is that Zifa needs to do more to ensure that talented Zimbabwean youngsters at home and around the world get the opportunity to play for their nation.
At this rate, more and more budding footballers will slip through the net and choose to play for the Warriors’ rivals.