Aces Youth Soccer Acadamy: Tiki-taka, Nick Faldo and Elneny

“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.

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One of the boys

 

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Control & pass … wash, rinse, repeat

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.

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Training under Swiss scrutiny

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.”

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Solo keepers

“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.

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THAT MISS
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Prowling the goalmouth
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Knackered

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.”

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Honest punishment

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.

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Technical manager Backlyfield Chivenga setting a new record

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.

 

Warriors left hanging in Gabon

I’ve never been to Gabon, but it’s a country that has indirectly influenced my life. One of my first friends at university was from there and I won a pageant representing the country. Now it is also the first place where I saw my national team compete in a major tournament. Unfortunately, the experience wasn’t pleasant to say the least.

The African Cup of Nations 2017 was Zimbabwe’s first AFCON participation in 11 years. In between that time: coaches aplenty had been sacked, controversial business tycoon Philip Chiyangwa became Zifa president and Fifa  banned us from qualifying for the 2018 World Cup because of outstanding debts.

It was in this environment that coach Callisto Pasuwa managed to qualify the nation for the finals in Gabon. Some might say that a group which included the likes of Swaziland, Malawi and Guinea was not the most tasking to advance from, but previous teams had failed in “easy” groups.

So here we are, our first group game against Algeria, beaten semi-finalists in 2015 and the fifth best nation on the continent. The game started with a great chance for Khama Billiat who had his dipping volley brilliantly parried on to the post by Rais Mboli.

But moments later it was the Desert Foxes who would take the lead. Riyad Mahrez the newly crowned African Footballer of the Year was afforded the liberty of Franceville to cut inside from the right and unleash a curling shot past Tatenda Mukuruva.

Now I like Costa Nhamoinesu a lot, he is one of the few Warriors playing at a competitive level with Sparta Prague in the Czech league. He has also experienced the Europa League. But in the Algeria game he was found wanting.

Was it the fact that he was playing centre-back instead of his left-back position at Prague? Did his partner Elisha Muroiwa who looked out of his depth give him too many fires to put out? Or was he simply not good enough? A bit of everything perhaps.

The Warriors did manage to overturn the deficit, first winger Kudakwashe Mahachi angled a low shot into the far corner and Nyasha Mushekwi converted a penalty after Onismor Bhasera was upended in the box. 2-1 to Zimbabwe at halftime.

The second-half had Algeria put the boys in yellow under immense pressure. The lads did not help their cause by retreating deeper and needlessly ceding possession the few times they had it. However they created  two glorious opportunities that would have finished of the game.

First Billiat slalomed into the box, turned Aissa Mandi inside out but found Mboli equal to his shot. Then Cuthbert Mahajila was released in front of goal but instead of squaring to Mushekwi for a tap-in, fired a weak effort straight at Mboli.

Of course Algeria equalized, though Mukuruva made a meal of Mahrez’s shot, parrying it into his own net. Zimbabwe managed to hold on for the point but there was huge disappointment mixed with optimism about the performance back home. If we could take our chances and defend more resolutely against group favorites Senegal we would be in with a shout.

Instead we were dealt a harsh lesson. From the first whistle Senegal dominated in every department. In midfield Cheikou Kouyate and Idrissa Gueye looked a level above Katsande and Marvelous Nakamba. On the wings, Sadio Mané and Keita Balde tormented the Warriors defense at every opportunity. At half time the score read 2-0 to the Lions of Teranga courtesy of goals from Mané and Henri Saivet.

The second stanza was merely a formality, the Lions held Zimbabwe at paws length and could’ve embarrassed the lads if it wasn’t for Mukuruva and some lackluster finishing. Qualification was on the line in the last game, we needed to beat Tunisia and better Algeria’s result against Senegal. We duly crashed out of the tournament losing 4-2.

Casualties in the aftermath included skipper Willard Katsande who retired from international football that same day, passing the guard to the next generation and Pasuwa who was sacked by Zifa three weeks later. Though it was our first tournament in a while, there were issues that compounded the situation.

Money, Money, Moneeey always seems to be a problem with Zifa. Whether it’s a lack of funds to set up a training camp in a timely manner or paying the player’s bonuses, they always seem to come up short. Many people including Zifa vice president Omega Sibanda rounded on the players for striking over money instead of focusing on match preparations. But it resembled a deflection tactic from an organization that has previous in this matter.

Like most institutes in Zimbabwe, Zifa has been rocked with corruption scandals down the years and the public has lost faith in them. Footballers are paid to play football, if you don’t pay them the going rate they are entitled to take matters into their own hands, however bad the timing.

The players and the coach are no clement sons either. When people face adversity you hope that it galvanizes them to give their all, what we got was the leakiest defense in the group-stage conceding eight goals and seven of those came in the first-half of those games. Not once did Pasuwa see it fit to change the members of the back-line.

One can only hope that everyone involved learns from the Gabon debacle as qualification for AFCON 2019 in Cameroon is far from certain. Zimbabwe has been drawn in the same qualifying group as Congo DRC, Congo-Brazzaville and Liberia.  A chance to repair damaged national pride awaits.