IT’S a project that has been in the making for months, but yesterday the wait finally ended when the historic Real Betis Academy was launched in Harare.
It’s a landmark development, for Zimbabwean football and, just to demonstrate the importance of this venture, La Liga Southern Africa managing director, Marcos Pelegrin, graced the occasion and officially launched the academy.
The events in the capital sealed the global partnership between Athletes Sphere Management, a Zimbabwean firm fronted by former rugby star, Gerald Sibanda, and Spanish top-flight league side Real Betis.
The Zimbabwe Government have given their full approval to the project, which has the potential to earn the country millions of dollars through the sports tourism business sector, when it eventually peaks in the coming years.
The agreement comes just two weeks after President Mnangagwa launched the Visit Zimbabwe Promotion Campaign, which seeks to leverage on the sports and tourism sectors, to market the country as a premier tourist destination.
The campaign is an initiative between Zimbabwe Cricket and the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority, through their parent ministries of Youth, Sport, Arts and Recreation and Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality Industry.
The President said tourism growth in the country was hinged on an aggressive marketing strategy and welcomed synergy between the two sectors leveraging on Zimbabwe’s membership to the International Cricket Council.
As part of the initiative, the Chevrons wore a branded kit, inscribed, “Visit Zimbabwe a World of Wonders,” when they began their tour of Pakistan with the first One Day International battle in Rawalpindi yesterday.
With the match being broadcast into millions of homes, throughout the world, it provided the perfect medium for the spreading of the message that Zimbabwe is one of the best countries to visit.
But, more than being just a sporting partnership, the importance of yesterday’s event is provided by the underlying story that one of the world’s leading football clubs have found it necessary to invest in this country by bankrolling a high-profile academy.
This means that, beyond the chorus of negativity, which some prophets of doom have continued to spread around the world, trying to paint a bad picture of Zimbabwe, there are some people, and institutions, who are prepared to see beyond that lie.
Real Betis are one of them and believe the nursery, which will take on board players between the ages of 8 and 18, could be a success story for them, in particular, this country, in general, and the entire global football family.
The academy will be overseen by Real Betis technical director, Juan Parra, who is scheduled to come and work in Zimbabwe early next year.
Former Soccer Star of the Year, Murape Murape, is the head coach of the academy with Highlanders legends Johannes Ngodzo and Gift Lunga (Jnr) coming in as the first and second assistants.
Tichaona Diya and Philemon Mutyakureva are also on board as assistant coaches, in the academy whose medical side will be overseen by sports medicine expert Nicholas Munyonga.
Grant Mitchel will help out in fitness training.
We are very excited by this grand football project and our excitement is premised on the nursery’s potential to be a game-changer, in the history of our national game.
There has never been a question, as to the potential of Zimbabwe football, despite our size as a small nation with just about 15 or so million people.
We were the first country to provide an African footballer to win the European Cup, known as the Champions League, when goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar won the trophy with Liverpool.
We were also the first country, to provide an African footballer, to grace the English Premiership, when former Warriors captain, Peter Ndlovu, featured for Coventry City in August 1992.
Right now, we are the only country, in Southern Africa, who have a player who is playing for a club in the English top-flight league, where he shares the stage with some of the world’s finest players like Belgian superstar, Kevin De Bruyne.
Despite the poor funding of domestic football, and a battery of questionable leaders over the years, the local game has continued to provide the world market with some very good players.
What has been lacking, for years, is this kind of intervention, by Real Betis, to provide the funding, and expertise, needed to tap into the talent which lies in abundance across the country.
Such an investment into our football grassroots structures will ensure that our national game can find the next Peter Ndlovu, the next Khama Billiat, the next Knowledge Musona and the next Benjani Mwaruwari.
It means that we won’t lose scores of our finest crop of footballers who, either through frustration or lack of guidance, have ended up losing their way, at a crucial stage of their careers.
The arrival of the Betis Academy is meant to address the weaknesses, which we have left to cripple our game, by prioritising both investment, and focus, back into the junior ranks.
That is why we are excited with what happened yesterday, something which Sibanda and his crew at his agency had been working on, for a long time, underlying the importance of proper planning.
We hope that the ZIFA leaders, who have seemingly been reluctant to embrace this project, will see what we have been seeing, since it was announced that such a landmark football project was coming to town.
We hope they will provide it with all the support it needs because, there is no doubt about that, this could be a game-changer for our football.