Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor
FIFTEEN years ago, Tinashe Nengomasha blazed a trail and wrote his name in the history books of domestic football, when he became the youngest Warrior to feature in an AFCON final, in that showdown against the Pharaohs in Tunisia.
He was 21.
Today, he is a retired footballer working in the game’s junior development structures, helping Zimbabwean players find a path into the South African Premiership and combining that as an ambassador of the Castle Africa 5s, a continental amateur five-aside tournament. Given, what he did as a rookie international footballer, back when the Warriors were making their debut at the AFCON finals, Nengomasha — who was nicknamed ‘’The General’’ by Kaizer Chiefs fans — should be trusted to provide a fair assessment of the new crop of players joining the Warriors ranks.
And, this week, he sat down with The Saturday Herald to provide his views on those who have joined the crusade to hunt for gold in the jungles of African football.
Nengomasha believes this is an exciting time for Warriors fans because of the emergence of a number of footballers whom he believes have the quality to add value to the brand of the national team and do far better, in terms of writing success stories, than any group in the past.
He says that, unlike in the past, a number of the emerging players are now being exposed to the challenges of football in foreign lands at a younger age, than was the case in the past.
And this is helping them become battle-hardened Warriors, good enough to stand toe-to-toe with any team on the continent, by the time they are thrown into the deep end to represent their country.
The focus now, said Nengomasha, should be about the Warriors regularly making it to the knockout stages of the AFCON finals, rather than finding satisfaction from merely qualifying for the tournament.
With 24 teams now qualifying for the AFCON finals, about half the members of the CAF family, Nengomasha feels just reaching the showcase no longer has the same value which it did back in the years when this tournament was only reserved for just eight teams in the ‘80s.
The tournament was then expanded to cater for 12 teams in the ‘90s before becoming a 16-team event in the same decade.
Nengomasha says the Warriors have a reason to dream big, including winning the AFCON finals one day, something which their main rivals – South Africa’s Bafana Bafana and Zambia’s Chipolopolo – have achieved in the past.
Christopher Katongo, the striker who captained Zambia to their only AFCON success story in 2012, spent three days in the company of Nengomasha in Johannesburg this week, where among many issues, they discussed the state of the game in the region. Chipolopolo have, for the second AFCON finals, failed to qualify after coming short in a group that had Namibia and Mozambique, while the Warriors need to avoid defeat, in their final qualifier against Congo-Brazzaville next month to make back-to-back appearances at the showcase. The Warriors were the only regional face at the last AFCON finals in Gabon after both Bafana Bafana and Chipolopolo fell on the wayside in the qualifiers. But Nengomasha, who also played at the 2006 AFCON finals, says the narrative in local football should change from focusing on merely qualifying to succeeding at the tournament.
‘’We can’t be talking about qualifying all the time and using that as a benchmark for success,’’ said Nengomasha.
‘’It was a success when our group made it because we were going there for the first time and that is why our achievements were celebrated by the whole country. But, 15 years have passed since then, and we can’t be talking about the same story if we are really serious with our football, but what gives me hope that we will do better is the quality of players whom I have seen coming on board our national team.
‘’This is a Golden Generation, I can tell you, and I am so sure they will not let the nation down. Marshall Munetsi stands out among those players, I can see the future captain of the Warriors in that boy. He is composed, he is authoritative, he can play in many positions in the defence, central defence, the holding midfield role, among three defenders, he is a joy to watch. He is the modern defender, he doesn’t only win the ball back, but plays it to a teammate to start the attack and that’s what you want in today’s football.’’
Nengomasha also picked six other players he believes will make a big impression for the Warriors.
‘’Teenage Hadebe plays for Kaizer Chiefs and has fitted well into the team and those who play in South Africa will tell you that it’s not easy doing that because the pressure is intense,’’ said Nengomasha.
‘’I have also seen him play for the Warriors and he is unfazed by the challenge of representing his country. He is a very good player, has a good football brain and is one of those I tip to make a big impact for the national team in both the short and long term. Teenage was outstanding in the Soweto Derby and he showed great character and composure.’’
Nengomasha is not alone in singing the praises, with former Chiefs coach Steve Komphela, who used to captain Bafana Bafana during his playing days, also seeing quality in Hadebe.
“I predict a bright future for him at Chiefs,” said Komphela.
Hadebe is only 23. Striker Tino Kadewere also just 23 last month and has already played in Sweden and is now in France at the club that helped Paul Pogba prepare for an adventure into the big leagues of England and Italy with Manchester United and Juventus.
Kadewere scored four goals in a single league match for Swedish side Djugardens, a record which had stood since 1978. Alec Mudimu, the other 23-year-old at Welsh side Cefn Druids, Tendayi Darikwa, who turned 27 two months ago, is on the books of Nottingham Forest in England, Talent Chawapiwa, the 26-year-old who has moved to AmaZulu in South Africa and Kelvin Lunga, the 24-year-old son of former Warrior Max ‘’Scara’’ Makanza Lunga, are some of the players who have caught the eye of Nengomasha.