A YOUTH football tournament in Dallas in 2012 didn’t only provide the launch pad for the careers of four players, who represented the Warriors at the 2019 AFCON finals.
It also provided a foundation for what is the biggest football story in Zimbabwe today.
Three of those players made moves during the last transfer window, one of them won silverware in South Africa at the weekend, while the other continues to hog headlines back home.
The other one is now playing in Turkey.
Ironically, that tour of duty to Dallas, in the United States, seven years ago, almost didn’t happen when their club Bantu Rovers experienced visa complications.
Teenage Hadebe, Kuda Mahachi, Marvelous Nakamba and Danny Phiri were all part of that Bantu Rovers team in Dallas and, a few months ago, represented the Warriors at the 2019 AFCON finals.
Nakamba was so good as a teenager he earned his life-changing move from Africa to Europe despite playing in that youth tournament while battling flu.
It can be revealed that Aston Villa’s in-form summer signing was spotted playing for Bantu at the 2012 Dallas Cup by a scout who convinced French side AS Nancy to offer him a breakthrough.
But that’s only half the story as the Zimbabwean side — the first African team to enter the under-19 competition in 20 years — faced exasperating difficulties that almost ended their participation.
Visa complications initially prevented Bantu from competing but, co-owner Peter Grieve, an American investor who had worked tirelessly to secure their entry, made the magic happen.
And, that allowed Nakamba, albeit a shadow of himself in the contest because of illness, to realise his dreams.
“Marvelous was the best player in our team. He was also the only player to be signed up from that trip as he moved to Nancy soon after,” Grieve told The Athletic.
“We actually thought he had a bad tournament, though, because he had a bad cold throughout, but I suppose his quality came through.”
Nakamba has shone for Villa in recent weeks and was the stand-out performer in their last two games against Burnley and Norwich.
It’s not been an easy journey, though, as his upbringing was tough.
Bantu Rovers spotted him playing football in his local neighbourhood and offered not only the platform to nurture his talent, but also financial support to continue his education.
Part of the deal to join them was an agreement to teach children how to avoid contracting HIV and AIDS through football drills with a linked health organisation called Grassroot Soccer (GRS).
Grieve told The Athletic how Bantu Rovers’ high-flying Under-19 team earned an invite to the Texas event after three years of competitive action without a defeat.
Not only did they hold their own in the tournament — reaching their section’s semi-finals — but four members of that team, would end up representing Zimbabwe at Africa Cup of Nations 2019 seven years later.
“It was touch and go, but we got there,” said general manager Wilbert Sibanda.
Grieve, founder and managing partner of private investment company Windy River Group, played a huge part in getting the team over to the States.
He invested in the club and paid for the flights.
The Dallas Cup organisers then found host families for the players to stay with during their two weeks in the States, with help from some unpaid volunteers who also assist with management at the club.
“We knew we had a golden generation of talent who deserved the chance to test themselves against other top teams in their age category,” Grieve said.
“When I found out about the Dallas Cup — one of the most prestigious youth tournaments in the world — I just had to make it happen for us.
“That said, we had so many problems trying to get the visas because the State Department were concerned that some of the players might not go back. I assured the officials that they would all be returning (which they did) and gave them a personal guarantee.
“It was a wonderful feeling when we got the all-clear. We made a kitbag for all the players with their individual shirts and it felt like Christmas such were the grins on their faces.”
Current England internationals Jesse Lingard and Michael Keane competed in that same 2012 tournament for a Manchester United academy team who ended up as runners-up in its Super Group.
Bantu Rovers impressed in the next category down — especially Nakamba, who has since turned out for Nancy, Dutch club Vitesse Arnhem and now Villa, joining in August from Belgium’s Club Brugge for £12 million.
Sibanda explained why that Dallas Cup trip was so special.
“We had a squad of just 14 players and they managed to get through five 90-minute games in seven days! Other teams had a full squad.
“When you factor in the travelling, the change of scenery and the climate, that’s so impressive, because we were the only African team there.
“It was a real eye-opener for the boys but they loved it. The host families who they stayed with also didn’t want them to leave at the end of the tournament. They were telling us how friendly, polite and well-mannered our boys were.
“Obviously for Marv it was so important because he was signed up by Nancy soon after.”
After the tournament, Bantu Rovers ditched their senior team and focused solely on youth development.
Students now have a passage into prep schools in New England, USA on scholar- ships.
Three other players from that 2012 team — Hadebe, Mahachi and Phiri — all joined Nakamba in turning pro, though, and all four made the Zimbabwe squad for this summer’s Africa Cup of Nations.
Mahachi celebrated his first trophy with SuperSport United when they won the MTN8 last weekend.
Not only has that group found international fame, they also played a part in raising awareness of AIDS and HIV during their younger years back home as part of a link-up with GRS.
During football camps, Nakamba would spend 10 hours a week teaching youngsters how to improve their on-field skills but also explain about HIV in more detail.
Former Zimbabwe captain Methembe Ndlovu, who co-owns Bantu Rovers with Grieve and is also the co-founder of GRS, came up with the idea.
The football drills Nakamba would often be involved in were varied.
As an example, coaches (Nakamba and other Bantu Rovers team-mates) set up cones in front of a goal for the players (the young children) to dribble through and the shoot.
Each child would then have to repeat the run with their legs tied to another player and arms also interlocked. The number of players interlocked then increased to three, and then four, and so on . . .
“It was a drill to drive home the message that the more partners (referring to sexual partners) you have, the more difficult it is to get through life in a clean fashion,” said Grieve.
“It certainly works.” — Sports Reporter/The Athletic