THE Zimbabwe Young Warriors marked their return to the Olympic qualifiers with a 2-0 aggregate win over Mozambique in the second round of the qualifiers for the Tokyo Summer Games next year.
Coach Tonderai Ndiraya’s hastily assembled team showed great character, to stop their opponents from scoring over 180 minutes, and then struck twice in quick succession at the National Sports Stadium on Tuesday to sail to the final round of qualifiers.
The national Under-23 side will now meet South Africa, who eliminated Angola, in the final showdown for a place at the AFCON battle in Egypt where the best teams will make it to Tokyo.
While the Young Warriors’ performance, especially in the second leg at home on Tuesday, did not impress many fans, with the team struggling for co-ordination for the better part of the match, the fact that they successfully completed their mission was what mattered.
They were under relentless pressure to do well after the Warriors successfully negotiated the final hurdle, which had been erected by Congo-Brazzaville, giving them the ticket to march to their second straight AFCON finals in Egypt in June/July this year.
But, for a team that was only assembled just a few weeks before their battle against the Mozambicans, with Ndiraya and his technical staff drafting in a number of Euro-based players they had never seen in action, the Young Warriors’ successful completion of their mission should be hailed.
Ndiraya was spot on when he said he expects his men to get better, the more they play together, and the end of the European season in May, should afford him more time to work with some of his key players to get the co-ordination he wants the team to display.
This then demands that his employers at ZIFA should provide him with the resources needed to ensure he gets a longer time in camp so that by the time we go toe-to-toe with the South Africans, who were impressive in their destruction of Angola, we will be in a better frame to compete.
We believe the Young Warriors, just like their Under-20 and Under-17 counterparts, are very important because they are the future of the Warriors, the men who, with the passage of time, will graduate into the senior team for the real battles in the AFCON and World Cup qualifiers.
There was a time when the ZIFA board, under the leadership of Cuthbert Dube, decided not to prioritise these national age-group teams with the Under-17s and Under-20s being banned from African competitions when they could not fulfil certain assignments.
That plunged our football into a mess and, it’s not a coincidence that, during that period, the Warriors failed to compete in the AFCON qualifiers and were knocked out in the preliminary round of the 2015 Nations Cup qualifiers at the first hurdle by Tanzania.
In the previous AFCON qualifiers, for the 2013 edition of the tournament, the Warriors had also failed to clear just two hurdles, against Burundi and Angola, to book their place at the finals of the tourney in South Africa.
But, things have changed now and we are seeing our junior teams coming back into action, where they get the important exposure, and this, in turn, prepares them for their graduation into the senior national team, as and when they are called up to make that giant leap.
A healthy state of affairs in the age-group national teams also means we are guaranteed a steady flow of competent players who can then represent our country, when it comes to AFCON and the World Cup, and that’s why we believe ZIFA and their partners have to invest heavily in the Young Warriors.
Ndiraya has cast his nets around the world and brought in some promising players, including a number who were born in Europe but have chosen to represent their fatherland, and that is a positive development because it means that the player base for the Warriors will be much wider.
Already, from the match played on Tuesday, England-born midfielder Seth Patrick, showed he has the potential to develop into a player who can, in the next few years, play for the Warriors and, crucially, he plays in an area where the Warriors have shown weaknesses in the past.
Such a talent should be nurtured and that’s why it’s imperative that these emerging players should be given as much support as possible.
We also urge the fans to support these Young Warriors, the same way they support the Warriors, and it was disappointing on Tuesday to see only a handful of supporters at the National Sports Stadium to back the Under-23 cause.
Two days earlier, an estimated 55 000 fans had converged at the giant stadium to support the Warriors and we have to start showing these young players the love they deserve because they represent this game’s future.