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Grace Chingoma Senior Sports Reporter

GERALD SIBANDA, the man who masterminded what could turn out to be one of the biggest deals in domestic football history, says this could be the game’s turning point.

The Athletes Sphere Management Sports agency president, and chief executive, sealed the deal that will see Spanish La Liga side, Real Betis, setting up an academy in Harare.

The retired rugby star has been been working on the deal for the past six months.

“The deal to play in Europe has now become more of a reality for any youth player, any talented player,’’ he said.

“Because, at the end of the day, they know that if l need to make it into Europe, it’s a matter of time for me to be noticed by international academies in Europe through Real Betis or other professional European clubs.

“The ultimate winner is ZIFA, the ultimate winner is our flagship team, the Warriors.

“We are looking at a possibility where the success of this programme would be a World Cup qualification one day, the success would be an Africa Cup of Nations quarter-final, or even a final place, something that we have not done before.

“I believe the players will step up from grassroots level.’’

Sibanda said the academy operations will start once the football lockdown is over.

“It is something that we have been working on since March, creating opportunities and bringing world-class opportunities into Africa and, obviously, Zimbabwe,’’ he said.

“My rugby background, and the connections that I built around Europe during my rugby career, (are) some of the things that inspired me to look into some of the shortcomings that l went through as a player.

“And, what my other fellow colleagues went through, as far as creating opportunities to allow us to play at a very high level, in whatever sporting discipline.

“That is where ASM was based, it was based from that dream to create opportunities that every Zimbabwean child, who is talented, and has always missed (can now get).

“We have very good football players from our country who have missed out on opportunities to play at high levels in Europe, not because they are not talented enough, but because they don’t have the getaway to those opportunities.’’

Sibanda had successful stints in top European clubs, including Scottish team, Gala, as well as Dinamo Bucharest in Romania.

He was capped 30 times with the Sables and remains one of the finest 7s players the country has produced.

Yesterday, he told The Herald how the Real Betis Zimbabwe came about.

“I think we started engaging in March 2020, and we were looking at different opportunities where I was a commercial agent for Real Betis, and the prospect of exploring an international project with Zimbabwe was something that l think was inspirational for me,’’ he said.

“To bring an international academy from a club with such a unique background with a proud history to develop talent here in our country, and expose them to high levels of competitive football, was something l couldn’t turn away from,.

“So, we started discussing the deal by the time we went into April and, the past few months, we have been discussing and l acquired the franchise.

“Obviously, the Athletes Sphere Management will run the academy down here in Zimbabwe and, with the support of Real Betis Balompie, from Spain they will give us all the supporting structures.

“We will have a technical director from Spain but he will come in 2021 after all the travel restrictions have been lifted and it’s a bit much safer.

“But from now on we would be appointing our head coach next week, who is going to take care of the first part of our football program,” he said.

The academy which will be based in Harare will however embrace the four football regions but due to Covid-19 might be restricted to start on a leaner operational scale.

“It is a nationwide football programme, obviously we are looking at four different regions of our country and we are looking to open as many opportunities as possible.

“The only factor at the moment is the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown.

“We need to hit the ground running and we are definitely ready to hit the ground running and, hopefully October, when the Government of Zimbabwe and ZIFA give us all clear to start our academy projects, we should be able to start with one programme in Harare.

“As far as the deal is concerned, we are looking at our country as the ultimate winner, it’s not me who is the winner, it’s not ASM the winner, and it’s not Real Betis the winner, the programme is for Zimbabwe.’’