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If Didier Drogba were Zimbabwean

THE boy with permed hair toiled all night but he could not find the back of the net. But it would have been even bitter-sweet for most Liverpool fans in Zimbabwe had Chelsea’s Didier Drogba scored in the English side’s Champio

ns League semi-final encounter on Wednesday night.

But we all know how predatory he is in front of goal and Drogba is a player many Zimbabweans undoubtedly wished were theirs. Though not a total footballer, surely many of us envy his aerial strength, speed and physique that he effectively uses to torment many a defender.

I was just imagining the impact Drogba would make in the Warriors team if he were ours when an e-mail from one Michael Mupereki of Harare reminded me that the Chelsea star was not the only player the Ivory Coast could rely on.

The Elephants also boast Bonaventure Kalou of AJ Auxerre in France, Kolo Toure of Arsenal in England, Aruna Dindane of Anderlecht in Belgium, and Mariko Daouda of Romanian club Universitatea Craiova.

To anyone who follows soccer, such a cast would strike fear in the heart of any opponent. Surely such big names are an envy of any coach the world over.

But again, that’s not all the Ivory Coast can talk of in soccer. A television documentary I watched this week revealed the West African country actually had over 30 players as good as Drogba or Toure who were dotted around Europe.

The biggest question however remains why the Ivory Coast has never qualified for the World Cup finals or won the African Cup of Nations again since their 1992 achievement if they can make three equally good teams.

The sad reality is that the majority of the Ivorian professionals abroad have been reluctant to feature for their national side for one reason or another.

AJ Auxerre’s Olivier Kappo and Liverpool’s Djibril Cisse, who are of Ivorian descent, could have opted to play for France instead of their fatherland because of the prestigious class of European soccer.

Maybe others fear military detention as happened to the likes of Olivier Tebily, Ghislain Akassou, Didier Angane, Hamed Modibe Diallo, Tchiressoa Guel, Cyrille Domoraud and Lamine Diatta as punishment for being eliminated in the first round of the 2000 African Cup of Nations.

It seems over the past decade most Ivorian professionals have been unwilling to commit themselves to national duty due to the disastrous administration of football at national level. In short, there was no professional approach when it came to international matches.

While the issue of bonuses and allowances is almost the same story in most African countries, the civil war that broke out in the cocoa-producing country seemed to have eaten into the Ivorian players’ patriotism.

Whatever the reason, the Ivory Coast still have an embarrassment of talent in the likes of Gerard Gnanhouan (Sochaux, France), Mamadou Coulibaly, Lezou Doba (both Lokeren, Belgium), Blaise Kouassi (En Avant Guingamp, France), Abdoulaye Meite (Olympique Marseille, France), Marc Zoro (Messina, Italy) Kanga Akale (AJ Auxerre, France), Guy Demel (Borussia Dortmund, Germany), Serge Die (Nice, France), Bakari Dagui (RC Lens, France) and Arouna Kone (Roda JC Kerkrade, Netherlands).

The story of Ivory Coast football is a case study for Zimbabwe not only in soccer but other sporting disciplines.

It’s not by sheer luck that the Ivory Coast have so many talented footballers when Zimbabwe boast only Benjani Mwaruwari and Shingi Kawondera in recognisable leagues in Europe. The others in Europe are either struggling at inferior leagues or are simply no better than what we have on the domestic scene.

If anyone were serious about nurturing the soccer talent we claim is abundant in Zimbabwe, schools of excellence like those in the Ivory Coast would be a starting point.

Without taking anything away from the endeavours of the likes of Bekhimpilo Nyoni and Agatha Sheneti soccer academies, to name but a few, we have absolutely nothing to talk about in terms of grooming footballers.

It would really make sense and cents if Zimbabwe’s top clubs were to establish their own academies that are professionally run.

If anyone remembers, Guel, Dindane and Domoraud were products of the Asec Mimosas youth policy when they came to Zimbabwe in 1998 to play Dynamos in the Champions League. They were young then, but look where they play now and how they have matured to make Ivory Coast an emerging powerhouse in Africa.

In Zimbabwe not only do we have clubs not keen to promote youngsters, but administrators who connive with players to alter their ages. It’s little wonder all the “young” stars who represent the country at junior competitions fizzle out before even realising their potential.

They are cheats but they will never cheat football. A player has to be nurtured from a tender age and that will certainly benefit the national team as he matures with age and experience.

It’s better to nurture young players and give them a chance even if it might be at the expense of a title. That’s exactly what should be happening at Dynamos if they are at all rebuilding as they claim.

It would be wise for football administrators not to hamper careers of youngsters — as in the case of Quincy Antipas — by haggling over issues that would have no place in any professional set-up.

On the other hand, we ought to realise that developing talent without developing domestic structures in tandem won’t help us in any way. That’s why the Ivory Coast have wasted so much resources in developing many players who find no incentive of coming back home once they taste the professionalism in Europe.

We should have professionally run league structures that will not only keep some of our best players home but also lure the best from other countries. We should not have players opting to play in inferior leagues just for money, which won’t help them to develop into world-class stars.

Once we have professional and competitive leagues on top of serious youth academies, there is no doubt sponsors would literally fall over each other to bankroll such commendable efforts.

Zimbabwe will be the winner in the end, and stars will also literally fall over each other to represent the country. There won’t be guaranteed jerseys anymore and that day Zimbabwe will be a force to reckon with.

Nurturing talent without developing professional and competitive clubs and leagues is a sheer waste of resources. No one should cry foul if we don’t refocus and revamp the way most sporting disciplines are run.

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