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Junior development a fantasy

IndependentSport View – Itai Dzamara

DEBATE on rampant cases of age cheating in local soccer circles has eventually brought the issue into the public spotlight after several years in the shadows.

However, the major issue that lies behind the chaos surrounding age cheating – which features prominently at the level of national junior teams – is the failure by virtually all sporting disciplines to develop well-defined and established junior policies.

In other words, all our sporting disciplines fall short on developing junior talent and we can only expect chance to produce stars that will represent the country on the international scene.

Government has been claiming that the country has a sports junior development policy and refers to schools sporting activities. What a charade!

Indeed, it is true most schools in this country have, or claim to have, some teacher-in-charge of sports. But a survey would prove that in most cases, the only sports that are known to exist at schools are athletics and soccer, in which there is nothing much to talk about, especially at government-run schools.

One of the casualties of the confused policy controversy on schools emanating from the Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture has been the sporting curriculum. Development or maintenance of sporting facilities and technical expertise has suffered major blows as Minister Aeneas Chigwedere fights an unnecessary battle with parents. Again, government schools have been the most affected.

The few schools which seem to be serious in the area of sports – and names such as Prince Edward and Churchill in Harare come to mind – are less interested in talent development than they are in claiming victory. That’s the reason why such schools, with better resources and funding, have maintained the tradition of luring the best players in every field from high-density suburbs and poorly run schools such as Kwayedza in Highfield.

The sole, and usually only purpose, would be winning for example the Nash Coca-Cola Soccer Tournament.

And it doesn’t matter whether at times some of the players lured from high-density suburbs through offers of schools fees redemption or scholarships would be repeating again and again. It also doesn’t matter that in some cases, the players are made to change their ages to make them younger so that they can sit O-Level for the third or fourth time.

Now, certainly, that’s not junior development by any chance! Neither is it junior development for a school such as Mufakose High in Harare to look around for the best soccer players in the community – whether they are still in class or still interested in education never mind – and put a team together for the second schools term for the schools soccer league.

That team, comprising some thugs from the high density suburb of Mufakose who would have failed their O-Levels more than twice, does whatever it can during the soccer season and thereafter ceases to exist. In other words, the players would be left to their fate in this troubled country.

By the way, the same applies to the other sporting disciplines such as athletics and even rugby, basketball, swimming and hockey.

After leaving school, the plight of any aspiring boy wishing to develop his talent in sports is characterised by serious challenges and hardships ranging from lack of infrastructure, resources, coaching facilities and even encouragement. Only the very few who would have endured eventually break into national leagues or established teams.

These can only be a drop in the ocean in proportional terms regarding the amount of talent that is endowed in boys and girls when they initially enter the gates to face trials and tribulations at our schools.

There is clearly no continuity which can benefit a young sportsman in his endeavour to grow into a professional. In other words, there is no established channels through which a school-going sportsperson can develop into a professional by joining say a Premier Soccer League club.

The school system forgets about the youngster as soon as he completes his/her studies and he/she then jumps into the zone of uncertainty.

It surely doesn’t need a rocket scientist to understand how our national sports bodies, most perennially struggling to get sponsorship, fail to channel any resources or efforts into junior development. The same applies to most clubs within these sporting disciplines.

However, we have a few good examples, from which lessons and solutions to this chronic problem could be drawn. The Zimbabwe Cricket Union (ZCU) has over the years diligently invested in junior development by tackling the real issues and it has started paying dividends.

The ZCU went into schools, especially in the high-density suburbs during the 1990s, to invest in infrastructure and technical expertise. Suburbs such as Mabvuku, Glen View and Highfield in Harare benefited from the construction of cricket pitches and training nets and a huge response from young boys interested in the sport, formerly regarded as a preserve for whites, started the ball of junior development rolling.

The investment drive also went out of schools into the communities, hence the construction of structures such as the Takashinga ground in Highfield.

I remember how the community used to find it quite strange during those years to see a few young boys carrying cricket bats and balls in the streets, trying to imitate how Andrew Flower struck boundaries or Henry Olonga released his screamers. It gradually marked a crucial departure from the common sight of young boys chasing a plastic ball but behind these images lay a major investment in the development of cricket talent.

Controversy and terrible leadership blunders aside, one can’t but marvel at the numbers that are currently involved in the craze of the game of cricket in this country. The numbers of blacks now playing at national league level and that can be national team material also bear testimony to the success.

Caps United Football Club, currently the talk of the town in soccer circles, is probably one of the few teams in this country still having a full time junior programme. Age groups from Under 13 train throughout the week and play matches at weekends. Now, the current Caps first team has the following players that rose from junior ranks: Tsungai Mudzamiri, Silent Katumba, Ashley Muza, Tichaona Nyenda, Artwell Mabhiza, Leonard Tsipa, Washington Pakamisa, Lionel Mtizwa and Mashet Zengeni.

The log leaders have the liberty to loan several good products of their junior policy such as Tineyi Meda and Itai Gwandu. Therein lies the answer to Caps’ amazing depth.

Compare this with Dynamos, which has spent the last six years immersed in squabbles!

We therefore need to retreat to the drawing board and restart the formula by setting up real junior policy development programmes for the majority of our sporting disciplines. The empty claims by politicians and sports administrators are useless as our results have consistently shown.

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