Eddie Chikamhi Senior Sports Reporter
AT his peak, he was a football stallion, a quality defender who was even mistakenly drafted into the Bafana Bafana squad by a coach who thought he was a South African.
But, the reality, is that Vusi Laher is a Zimbabwean.
He is the man who captained probably one of the most talented groups of the Young Warriors.
He led the Zimbabwe Under-23 side that won silver, at the All-Africa Games, and nearly made it to the ‘96 Olympic Games.
His leadership qualities were impressive while his talent was unquestionable.
Former South Africa coach, Clive Barker, at one point mistakenly called him for Bafana Bafana duty during his short stint in South Africa.
Everything was going according to plan and Laher’s star was on the rise.
In a game where leadership has as much value as raw talent, the steely defender appeared to tick all the boxes.
The sky, it appeared, was the limit for him.
But, one night, things changed.
At 24, before he had even established himself, he was forced to retire from the game because of a serious ankle injury.
The defender, then playing for Cape Town Spurs, was the victim of a dangerous lunge from Manning Rangers winger, Keryn Jordan, during a league match at Chatsworth Stadium in Durban.
The ankle injury ended all hopes of a future involvement with the Warriors.
“It’s probably the worst day in my life. There was an incident between opposing players, which was being attended to, by the referee,’’ Laher said.
“It so happened that I was the one next to the ball and, somehow, out of the blue, Keryn Jordan charged at me unprovoked.
“The guy actually intended to harm me, probably as a form of retaliation, on behalf of his teammates, for an incident that the referee was attending to.
“I had surgery twice on the same leg and, initially, there were signs of recovery. The doctors did their best but, after the third operation, they delivered the sad news that it was no longer possible.’’
He said the career-ending injury could not have come at a worse time.
“It was heart-breaking because I was reaching the peak of my game and there were talks about impending trials in Greece, which I saw as an opportunity to break into Europe,’’ he said.
“This thing really affected me because I also thought I was going to be part of the Warriors team for the coming decade.’’
But Laher says he was lucky to have led his country, in the junior ranks, because not everyone gets such an honour.
He said the memories, including the Young Warriors’ fairytale run in the 1995 All-Africa Games, which Zimbabwe hosted, will live with him forever.
The Under-23 football team captured the imagination of the nation but they were eventually forced, to settle for silver, after falling to Egypt in the final.
The team, which had the likes of George Mbwando, Alois Bunjira, Stewart Murisa, Methembe Ndlovu, Edelbert Dinha and Gift Muzadzi, nearly made it to the Olympic Games in 1996.
However, they were stopped by the All-Star Nigerian side comprising the likes of Nwankwo Kanu, Austin Okocha, Daniel Amokachi, Tijani Babangida and Celestine Babayaro.
The Nigerians went on to win gold at the quadrennial games in the United States.
That probably showed just how good that Class of Young Warriors was.
“I think we had good understanding as players because most of us had played together from the Under-17s, Under-20 and then Under-23,’’ he said.
“So, we knew each other quite well and we were determined to do well.’’
It was his wish to graduate into the senior national team, like many of his teammates, and help build the foundation for the Warriors maiden AFCON qualification in 2004.
Laher had started his football career, at a tender age, in Highfield in Harare.
He had stints with Zimbabwe Crackers, Rufaro Rovers, Black Mambas and then joined the colourful Blackpool side that took the Premiership by storm in the 1990s.
South African scouts were already looking at the 21-year-old.
His first port of call was at Kaizer Chiefs in 1996.
But, the deal, somehow, did not sail through.
Laher was supposed to replace compatriot, Francis Shonhayi, who had left for Amazulu.
“I spent two and half weeks on trial at Chiefs but I don’t know what happened with the negotiations,’’ said Laher.
“I returned back home but the next thing I was told you are going back to South Africa, this time to Cape Town Spurs (later Ajax Cape Town).
“The club had invited me for three weeks on trials but the coach indicated his interests after my second training session.
“The players were excited too.
“I didn’t understand the Afrikaans language that most of the guys were speaking but I later learnt that they were teasing Bafana leftback, Kannemeyer, that ‘your position is gone with this new guy.’
“The coach (Sergio Dos Santos) had to move him forward and it worked.
“We struck a good combination on the left side. They had quite a good squad with national team players like David Modise, Matthew Booth, David Kannemeyer and Shaun Bartlet.
“I signed a four-year contract but, in the third year, that’s when I got injured.”
Laher, a product of grassroots development, believes Zimbabwe has the talent to shake the region, and beyond, but the country was destroying the goose that has been laying the golden eggs.
“The problem at the moment is that we have no junior football,’’ he said. “In the past we used to have strong structures and it was football for everybody, from as early as eight to 10 years of age.
“You cannot see that now.
“Most of our players in the Premiership just pop up from nowhere, at 20 or 21 years, and they don’t last.
“No doubt, these guys are talented but that talent needed to be cultivated from a young age.’’