“Elneny how did you miss that!?” one of my teammates asked. To be fair I had no clue. I was played through on goal and with no keeper in nets I missed the target completely. But overall, my first training session with Aces Youth Soccer Academy was a positive experience.
“Stop the car here,” I told my mother. “There is a police blockade, I’ll walk it from here.” The morning session was just about to start and I didn’t want to run the risk of being delayed. I had been in contact with the people of AYSA for a few months and had visited their clubhouse, but today was going to be interactive: I was going to participate in the morning session. It was an opportunity to experience first hand, the education stars like Khama Billiat and Knowledge Musona benefited from.
The police gave me a “we know you told her to turn around” look, I shrugged and crossed Harare Drive, entering the Standard Charted Bank Sports Club. Immediately I recognized the administrator Bernard Kirimi who welcomed me with a big smile. The next step was to join one of the teams, technical manager Backlyfield Chivenga had no issue accommodating me with the under-21s. “No problem! If it gets too hot you can take a break.”
I’m naturally a trier but the fact that I had been sidelined with an inflamed heel for 10 months, meant that I had to tread lightly. The first drill had us stand face to face passing to each other through and along cones, alternating feet. “This isn’t too bad,” I thought to myself.
It got more sophisticated. One drill had a player standing in a little square with four players on each side about 10 meters away. The player in the middle had to receive a pass and return it back before the ball entered the square, repeating the sequence in every direction.
Marc Duvillard the co-founder of AYSA was observing this training sequence and was particularly interested when it was my turn in the square. “Well done. No not there, the other way! Yes keep going!” were a selection of things he told me in French. “It’s not easy for you!” he chuckled. “Yes but I always try to attempt and finish,” I replied.
It was around 10 a.m. and the sun was hitting us hard, so the water breaks were very welcome. I also started feeling a throbbing pain in my left metatarsal, something that I had picked up three weeks ago. Ignoring the discomfort I soldiered on to the next sequence. Chivenga wanted us to juggle the ball and alternate between our feet and thighs. I had never practiced with the latter and was all over the place.
“Don’t try too much,” said trainee coach Francis Jeyman “Start with two and then try three.” The former Black Aces player was an observant and calming presence around the training ground, his friendly approach reinforced my concentration when I lapsed.
My teammates on the day were always having a laugh with me and at my expense. They nicknamed themselves after famous players and decided quickly on a name for me: Mohamed Elneny. The Egyptian’s locks were probably the reason. I also had a comical exchange with one of them who had dyed his hair brown: “Hey where are you from?” he asked. Your Shona accent is shit!” “I’m from here and I can hear your accent when you speak English, it is also shit!” I retorted. Banter.
The goalkeepers had been training separately from us but would join us later in the 11v11s we were about to play. “We are going to start with two touch and no keepers,” said Chivenga. “You can only score at the goalmouth, no Nick Faldo shots. We are not playing golf here.”
“Elneny you play gun.” My teammates told me. As a natural defender it was always going to be tough playing as the striker but I accepted. Then THAT MISS happened. In my defense, there was someone closing me down but it was still poor. The next shot I took hit the post: Remember, there were no keepers and it was two touch.
We moved on to one touch and then multiple touch with keepers. It was at this moment that the training load got to me: My pressing was less enthusiastic, heavy touches and a metatarsal ready to explode. The other lads were all good. Still running, passing, shooting and dribbling at 100% energy levels.
As we were warming down bootless, it felt like the high intensity stuff was over but Chivenga had a nasty surprise in store for us. It didn’t really shock me, he likes to keep his players on their toes and will randomly say things like “everyone chase me,” the poor souls who finish last would have to dance a jig in front of an unsympathetic crowd. But his latest trick came with a twist.
“Get up this is the shoe race!” he barked. I bolted up and quickly picked up my boots. “Stop! Those with their own pair move there, someone else’s pair move here and with nothing stay right here.”
He came to our group: “So you are the honest guys? In football it doesn’t always pay to be honest.” Our mouths dropped open. “ Do you score in your own goal or someone else’s? Go join the guys with nothing.”
We were put through push-ups, sit-ups and burpees. the number of sets depended on the amount of shoes the “dishonest” guys had collected. I can still see the smirks on their faces. After our punishment the training session was over and I headed straight for the water bottles, chugging down one and then another.
With a refreshed perspective I interrogated Chivenga on the ‘madness’ he had put us through. Boasting a coaching career spanning 17 years in basketball, karate and now football, AYSA’s technical manager loves to incorporate ideas from other sports to stimulate his players.
“I use a lot of passing drills from basketball, especially anything concerning delivery from the wings,” he says. “The idea in both sports is the same. The only difference is that you’re using your hands in one and feet in the other. My experience in karate also helps with fitness exercises I put the boys through.”
Chivenga likes to come up with his own ideas “but do you have a role model when it comes to coaching?” I asked. He doesn’t hesitate to answer: “Pep. I really liked his work with the Barcelona academy. He never blames his players for losing games, he prefers to take the criticism. But expects his players to correct themselves.
“A manager who shouts at his players during the match, shows that the work hasn’t been done properly in training. I don’t speak much during games, if my players see that their pressing is not working, after the second attempt they will sit back. Individually and collectively they know what they need to do to correct errors.”
Our conversation shifted to the gap between grassroots and professional football in the country and a few interesting points came out: “The clubs in the Premier League don’t share the same philosophies as their academies. It’s only about winning. One of our little wingers would struggle in this system as they would just launch the ball to the striker. For someone accustomed to playing on the ground it’s a struggle.”
While the kick and run style might not suit them it doesn’t mean that the AYSA players can’t compete physically with the professionals. “ We sent our players for speed tests, one of our boys clocked 15.6 seconds while the best time from a Premier League player was 21.6.” A result of the academies great work.
Chivenga then ushered me to the lunch table where Danai Kirimi the matron at the clubhouse was handing out plates. “She takes care of the boys,” he said. “And you!” she laughed. The food was rice, chicken and cut up veggies a decent meal after a tough session.
I was very happy with my experience at AYSA. An honorable mention to head coach Ekkie who took the pictures you see. One article does not do justice to the work the folks of AYSA are contributing to Zimbabwean football. Please look out for more articles on this top academy.