Zimbabwe coach Norman Mapeza has always been known for his penchant for giving opportunities to young players.
In his first stint as Warriors coach, he handed out national team debuts to current captain Knowledge Musona, the now-retired star Khama Billiat and his former vice-captain Ovidy Karuru when they were barely out of their teens.
And it seems Mapeza is likely to continue his tradition of backing young players after including two teenagers Bill Antonio and Panashe Mutimbanyoka from the local side Dynamos and FC Platinum respectively in the 30-man provincial Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) squad which was announced on Tuesday.
Nineteen-year-old former Young Warriors winger Mutimbanyoka, has been a revelation at FC Platinum after playing a starring role in the Zvishavane-based side’s march to the Chibuku Super Cup trophy recently.
“These youngsters are the future, Knowledge is 31, Khama is in his 30s and they are not going to be here with us for long, so we need to start preparing. I am not afraid to throw in youngsters remember I gave Knowledge and Khama their debuts in 2011 when they were youngsters and I will continue to do that for the nation,” The former Warriors captain, who handed 18-year-old Dynamos winger Bill Antonio his national team debut against South Africa last month.
Dynamos’ 18-year-old starlet Antonio, who was given his Warriors debut by Mapeza after coming in from the bench in the penultimate World Cup qualifier against South Africa, is set to retain his place in the squad ahead of the Afcon finals.
The Prince Edward School student Upper Six student has been enjoying a fairy-tale season after breaking into the DeMbare squad under Tonderai Ndiraya.
Antonio’s fairy-tale began late last year when he made the Zimbabwe national Under-20 for Cosafa and excelled.
Harare giants Dynamos were swift in signing the player and a few others from Prince Edward Academy.
He is also the athletics team captain at the prestigious Harare school.
Antonio and Mutimbanyoka shone for their respective teams in Chibuku Cup as well as in the league so far but it awaits to be seen whether they will make the final Afcon squad.
In addition to the teenage duo Mapeza also included a number of unheralded players such as Cranborne Bullets defender Tapiwa Sibanda, midfielder Temptation Chiwunga who plays JDR Stars in South Africa and Chicken Inn midfielder Shepherd Mhlanga in the bloated squad.
The Warriors face an injury crisis ahead of continental championships with big-name players such Marshall Munetsi, Marvelous Nakamba and Brendan Galloway, who play in European leagues, the casualties.
Tendayi Darikwa, who was part of the team that participated in the last Afcon finals in Egypt, asked to be excused for the Cameroon edition while Leicester City teenage sensation Tawanda Maswanhise is dragging his feet to acquire a Zimbabwean passport.
There is also no place for Khama Billiat who called time on his international career last month in spite of the fact that Zifa was making effort to lure him back for the Afcon finals.
The squad which is expected to start training in Harare on Thursday will be trimmed to finals 23-member for the continental premier football competition on December 31.
The event 2021 Afcon finals which have been rescheduled due to the Covid-19 pandemic will run from January 9 to February 6 and it will be the first time that Mapeza takes the national team to the continental championship.
Well done young blood💪PPP
In a match played yesterday against South Africa at the COSAFA U20 Men’s Championship, our own Panashe Hilton Mutimbanyoka scored. The match ended on a 2 all draw. #GoWarriors#pureplatinumplay pic.twitter.com/5lldmVQxy7
— FC Platinum (@FCPlatinum) December 4, 2020
Zimbabwe are in Group B of the competition alongside giants Senegal, Guinea and fellow Southern African nation Malawi.
The Warriors kick off their Afcon campaign against Senegal on January 10 before entertaining Malawi four days later and conclude their group campaign with Guinea on January 14.