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Tinashe Kusema Deputy Sports Editor

ATHLETES Sphere Management (ASM) president and executive chairman Gerald Sibanda has called for support from all stakeholders, including corporates for his vision to make Zimbabwe the epicentre of football development.

Sibanda’s call comes just days after Spanish La Liga side Real Betis announced that they had partnered ASM for an academy to be launched in the country soon. The Spanish outfit wants to spread the project across Africa with Zimbabwe expected to be the central point of their operations. Sibanda told The Sunday Mail Sport that with a buy-in from the game’s stakeholders, Zimbabwe could turn the corner in youth development and create opportunities for professional contracts for young footballers.

“When I was appointed as a global partner for Real Betis sometime in March this year, part of my mandate was to find ways of opening opportunities for the club here in Africa.”

“They wanted to expand their brand. La Liga are growing their brand in Africa, with offices in Nigeria and South Africa, and now the Spanish clubs are starting to follow suit.

“They are looking at ways to create opportunities, whether it’s commercial or development, and this is where I come in,” he said.

“I had two options — either go the commercial route where sport tourism is now a big part of any economy and could have facilitated trips in the mould of Arsenal’s trip to Rwanda, Manchester City’s trip to Abu Dhabi and Everton’s trips to Tanzania.

“However, I chose the developmental route partly due to the Covid-19 pandemic which restricted my movements abroad, and in part due to the immense benefits an academy could have for Zimbabwe.

“We have been crying out for more work to be done in terms of grassroots development in football, and what this academy seeks to do now is remove obstacles that currently exist for players hoping to break into Europe and also better equip the youngsters for the demands and requirements needed to make it in Europe”.

The academy, which will be launched next month, will operate in four regions —  Harare, Bulawayo, Midlands, Manicaland and Victoria Falls. As a starting point, two schools will be used as centres in Harare and Bulawayo, while Midlands, Manicaland and Victoria Falls will chip in with one each.

Although ASM will run the academy, Real Betis Football Club will appoint and send a technical director who will oversee the entire programme in Zimbabwe.

A group of at least 15 players will travel to Spain every season where they will take part in five training sessions, two friendly matches with local teams and Real Betis schools, tour the club’s stadium and city and undergo classes.

Sibanda said a local coach would be selected to take the students through their paces, while mentorship programmes would be adopted as a means to bring some of the retired local footballers into the mix.

“My experience in sport gave weight and credibility when negotiating this deal, and such experience will form the basis of our mentorship programme.

“While I cannot guarantee that Real Betis will sign a player from the academy, I can safely say that our players will get the opportunity to try out, they will get exposure and we will equip them with the right tools with which to launch their football careers.

“Every centre will have coaches and here we are looking at some of our football legends who will bring not only their expertise in terms of skills and knowledge, but also share their experiences in what we are calling a mentorship programme.

“Some of them have made it, and some failed to fully achieve their dreams and their wisdom and experiences are key to the younger generation. If their stories and experiences can help at least a child, then that will be a job well done.

“In as far as opportunities go, there will be tournaments that we will be eligible to take part in, and friendlies against more established academies like Juventus, FC Porto, Manchester City and Real Madrid we plan on introducing. These games will not only give our players exposure, but they will also create opportunities for them to attract scouts,” he said.

The 34-year-old former Cheetahs and Sables international believes that with the support of Zimbabweans, the dream could become a reality.

“This academy has the potential to benefit Zimbabwe as a whole, and our football in particular, and I will be calling on every stakeholder who has been involved in football, or had dreams of doing so, to come on board and help make it a reality.

“This must be endorsed as a national programme.

“We have put in the work. Facilities have been identified and we have made our sign-ups with schools in the five key regions.

“We are currently in the process of finalising those deals and will be making the necessary announcements in the coming weeks together with the identities of the main coach to oversee the programme and the identity of the technical director.

“There will definitely be Real Betis centres in Harare, Bulawayo, Midlands, Manicaland and Victoria Falls very soon.

“In time, Zimbabwe will then act as the epicentre of many other Real Betis Academies from all over Africa,” Sibanda said.

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