By Lwazi Dlamini
Not since the products of the Umtsentse Development Programme in the late 1990s and early 2000s has the nation had a genuine belief that finally, the road to the promised land is earnestly underway.
The National Under-20 squad which participated in the COSAFA Cup in October 2022 – hosted by Eswatini for the first time in 29 years – might have failed to reach the knockout stages of the tournament but it did enough to give emaSwati hope for the future.
Free-scoring striker Mukelo Nkambule, whose four-goal haul in the tournament saw him share the top goal-scorer award with Angola’s Danilson Makokisa, was one of the outstanding players as well as Nsingizini Hotspurs duo of Thubelihle Mavuso and Mayibongwe ‘Suarez’ Mabuza, Moneni Pirates starlet, Yekisizwe Khumalo, Sinenkhosi Dlamini, Kelvin Kunene and Phumlani Shongwe to mention but a few.
Two of the National Under-20 squad players, Mabuza and Khumalo are currently in a one-month trial assessment with several Italian Serie B sides after impressing well-known Italian scout Andrea Innocenti (Empoli, Serie A) who watched the COSAFA Under-20 Youth Championships.
The optimism from the nation regarding the Under-20 squad is not misplaced. EmaSwati craves a team that can give them the craze. They yearn for a national team of freshly faced diminutive midfielder Dennis ‘Yuki’ Masina, of a galloping Sibusiso ‘Spoko’ Dlamini, the national team of an astute dearly departed Tholeni ‘Schuster’ Nkambule bossing the midfield; of Siza ‘King Pele’ Dlamini bull-dozing defences like a rhino going through spider-webs; of Mfanzile ‘Fash’ Dlamini’s muscularity and sublime first touch; of a probing John ‘Shisa Junior’ Mdluli captained by the indefatigable Jerry ‘Mbazo’ Gamedze.
That was the last time soccer fans saw battle-hardened warriors who were prepared to give heart and soul to the jersey and fly the nation’s flag with pride. It does not need a rocket scientist to deduce that most of these players who gave us the thrills in the late 1990s and early 2000s, were products of the Umtsentse Development Programme and most importantly, the Chappies Little League.
As the nation picks up the debris of yet another Sihlangu ‘plane’ crash in the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) 2023 qualifiers – and we have not found the ‘black box’ yet – it is important to state categorically clear that our potential as a football nation in the last 55 years as a member of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) is not in doubt.
But dysfunctional development structures, abhorrent administration, and a premier league that is not-so “premier” at the hands of a Football Association fighting factional wars have contributed to the malaise that has come to engulf the number one sport in the country. With two remaining fixtures against Togo’s Sparrow Hawks and the Stallions of Burkina Faso, chances of Sihlangu qualifying for its maiden appearance in the continental showpiece are remote as Yours Truly being the next Mr Eswatini.
Under the new leadership of President Peter ‘Samora’ Simelane, the nation is not holding its breath after the football head-honcho was side-tracked by an egocentric fight with his two vices, Mashumi Shongwe and Steven Horton. Soccer enthusiasts are hoping the least the EFA can do would be to preserve and invest in the National Under-20 squad which showed glimpses of camaraderie and inventiveness in the COSAFA Under-20 Championship though the Mduduzi Nxumalo-coached side, like all other squads before it, failed to reach the knockout stages.
The Federation of International Football Association (FIFA) has intervened through the Technical Development Scheme (TDS) which is one of the programmes introduced by FIFA’s Chief of Global Football Development, former Arsenal Manager Arsene Wenger. The Technical Development Scheme (TDS) was launched in Eswatini in late February.
This is a project by FIFA that is aimed at creating a sustainable legacy for long-term development by maximising each FIFA Member Association’s (MAs) opportunities as per the global ecosystem analysis (ESA).
The ESA was conducted for 18 months and it came out with two findings which are; a clear view of the global imbalance that exists in football, and the great potential of the MA’s talent development programme to tackle this imbalance.
Read More: How Sports Can Boost African Economies
As highlighted by FIFA President Gianni Infantino at the 71st FIFA Congress in May 2021, the TDS will offer a tailor-made concept for each country on how best to operate to give every talent a chance.
During the launch event that took place at the EFA’s Technical Centre in Lobamba, FIFA was represented by Serame Letsoaka, who is the FIFA Technical Consultant. Also present during this event were the EFA Executive Committee Members and some Executive Committee Members from the EFA Membership to mention a few.
When making his address during this launch, Letsoaka highlighted the importance of implementing football development programmes at the grassroots level.
“If the foundation is strong enough, everything takes care of itself, because everybody wants to sponsor a good product”, Letsoaka said.
Speaking on behalf of the EFA President was the Lubombo Regional Football Association Chairperson who is also an Executive Committee Member of the EFA, Nicodemus Mashwama who acknowledged the support by FIFA towards football development in the country and for making it possible that this programme is implemented in the country.
“As EFA, we would like to acknowledge FIFA for her support towards football development in the country and the implementation of the TDS in the country. We assure FIFA that this project will be perfectly executed in the country”, Mashwama said.
The TDS- Eswatini will be implemented in six EFA centres with the possibility of adding more. These centres are, Mkhuzweni, Lobamba, Manzini, Matsapha, KaLanga and Nhlangano and its theme is “Consolidating football talent”.
The participants in this football development programme are U13, U15 and U17 boys and girls. This talent was identified from the other football development programmes that are implemented by the EFA. As emaSwati join His Majesty King Mswati III in celebrating his 55th birthday, the buzzword is ‘Time for a new change, bold action’, here is hoping the EFA will wake up from their long slumber and tap into the raw talent from emaSwati in particular at the grassroots level through the newly launched TDS Programme in the six football centres to build a team for the future.
The groundbreaking initiative by FIFA will certainly bear fruits in the not-so-distant future and enable Sihlangu to stop being the region’s whipping boys and herald a new generation of stars that will be a toast of the nation.