JUST last week, world sport bade farewell to one of Zimbabwe’s finest rugby exports, the Zimbabwean-born Wallaby, David Pocock. He called time on a career that saw him earn a reputation as arguably the best fetcher the world has ever seen — his statistics at the breakdown dwarfing those of legendary former All-Blacks skipper, Richie McCaw.
Pocock is a product of Midlands Christian College in Gweru, and there is no doubt they must have watched on with immense pride as their former student rose to prominence down under, first with Australia Schools Rugby and then when he cut his teeth in Super Rugby with the Brumbies in 2008. That he would go on to become one of the best rugby players in the world over the course of the next 12 years came as no surprise.
What did come as a surprise though, was the Springbok career of Tendai Mtawarira. The Beast, as he is affectionately known, a former Peterhouse student enviously claimed by Churchill, where he spent the early years of high school, conquered South Africa’s notoriously treacherous rugby terrain with its mountains of racism and valleys of discrimination.
In a sport where stereotypes are entrenched and blacks were largely confined to the wing for their speed and athleticism, ala the late Chester Williams, the Beast broke the mould — his sheer mindedness, power game and work ethic opening the door for a steady stream of black front-rowers amongst the Springbok ranks. Black and Zimbabwean, Mtawarira had everything working against him, but he bagged an incredible 117 caps over an outstanding career crowned with World Cup glory in Japan last year.
Zimbabwe Cricket too has its own tales to tell of stars that have gone on to forge international careers flying foreign flags. Graham Hick, Gary Balance, Tom and Sam Curran have all played for England. Colin de Grandholme is now a dependable all-rounder for the Black Caps of New Zealand — capable of turning in match-winning performances with both willow and leather. Golf too has suffered its own talent drain which in recent years has seen Mutare-born Dean Burmester opt for South Africa over his country of birth.
While this may make painful reading for ardent sporting patriots, even the most hardened amongst them will be forced to admit that none of the stars mentioned would’ve gone on to become the household names that they are now, if they had chosen to remain in Zimbabwe.
Far too often, many of them were left with no other way than the foreign route. And why is that? The answer is very simple: we have no system in place to produce world-class athletes.
Tennis Zimbabwe, for example, profited from the personal investment of the Black family who produced three world-class tennis players in brothers Byron and Wayne as well as their sister Cara. This perhaps explains the reason why we are yet to see any players come through that can match the exploits of the Black family — the heady heights of seeing the likes of Andre Agassi slugging it out at the City Sports Centre in Harare are but a distant memory.
There are those that will argue that seated in the Minister of Sport’s office is Africa’s most decorated Olympian, testament that homegrown talent too can cut the mustard. But Kirsty Coventry, Zimbabwe’s golden girl, is a product of the American collegiate system. While she may have shown promise while at Dominican Convent, Zimbabwe could never have turned her into the world-beater she became. It was the time spent at Auburn University that enabled her to cash-in on her potential. That she flew the Zimbabwe flag is commendable, but if she were a car and we looked under the hood, the engine would be stamped “Made in America”.
Even in football, arguably our most successful players: Peter Ndlovu, Bruce Grobelaar, Benjani Mwaruwari, Norman Mapeza and now Marvelous Nakamba, have all taken the next step as a result of being exposed to the professional rigours that define European top-flight football.
Over the last decade, Africa has awakened to the vast riches that the diaspora offers in the large pool of players produced at no cost to the continent. Rough diamonds polished and attractive to even the best sides in world football. Wilfred Zaha of Crystal Palace, a player coveted by England, pledged his allegiance to Côte d’Ivoire. Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez who the Warriors face in a few weeks, was born in France, trained at AAS Sarcelles and wooed by Algeria the country of his father’s origin.
Zimbabwe must not be left behind in this tide that is sweeping the continent. Without the systems in place or strategic plan to produce internationally competitive footballers, Zifa can short-circuit success by harnessing the vast potential offered by a diaspora which conservative estimates place at around four million.
The association needs to roll up its sleeves and exert energy to digging up players of Zimbabwean origin capable of turning us from also-rans into genuine contenders. This is equally true for any other sporting codes as long as our desire is for cups, trophies and medals. Just as in our beloved Manicaland, there are diamonds in the diaspora.