WARRIORS coach Norman Mapeza says he was forced to make a last minute call-up of former Celtic midfielder Kundai Benyu as he needed to spice up his midfield with a creative player ahead of the AFCON tournament.
Benyu, who is now based in Iceland, was a surprise inclusion in the final 23-man squad to represent Zimbabwe at the biennial football tournament which gets underway on January 9 in Cameroon.
He was scheduled to fly from Manchester yesterday and would link up with the team in Ethiopia for the final leg of the trip to Yaoundé today.
“We spoke about it at length. We wanted someone who is a little bit creative, we want someone who does those box-to-box runs. So I think Kundai will give us that. That’s why we called him at the last-minute,” said Mapeza.
The 24-year-old midfielder, who joined Scottish giants Celtic as a mere teenager five years ago, is currently working on reviving his career after enduring frustrating times under Brendan Rodgers, who is now the Leicester City coach.
Before joining the Scottish giants, the Zimbabwe international had already played a number of first-team games at a tender age, albeit in the English National League.
Benyu has played professional football in four European countries since then. He has played for his childhood English League One side Ipswich Town reserve team, Helsingborg senior team in Sweden, Celtic in the Scottish Premiership and lately Vestri in Iceland’s second tier.
The midfielder has two international caps for Zimbabwe after featuring in friendly games in 2017.
Mapeza said he was happy with the addition and will be looking forward to the experience of skipper Knowledge Musona, Onismor Bhasera, Teenage Hadebe, Kuda Mahachi and Alec Mudimu, who have played at AFCON finals before, to guide the team.
Sensational left-back Jordan Zemura, from English Championship side Bournemouth, also found his way back into the squad after recovering from injury.
He will join the group in Cameroon next week along with Leicester-born forward Admiral Muskwe, who plays for Luton Town, Scotland-based David Moyo, Olympique Lyon’s Tino Kadewere and skipper Musona.
Zimbabwe travelled with a new set of goalkeepers after Petros Mhari, Talbert Shumba and 23-year-old Martin Mapisa were selected to guard goal.
Due to budgetary constraints, Zimbabwe chose to stick to the mandatory squad of 23 players despite CAF waiver for teams to carry five additional players as cushion in case of Covid-19 outbreaks during the tournament.
Zimbabwe still have contingency plans as they have three players on standby. These are South Africa-based midfielder Temptation Chiwunga and the two youngsters, Bill Antonio of Dynamos and Panashe Mutimbanyoka of FC Platinum.
Arrangements were being put in place for the three to follow the squad to Cameroon.
CAF have made it clear that associations will “will bear the cost of the international travel as well as the accommodation of these additional players on the final list.”
However, there were no places for experienced campaigner Knox Mutizwa and the Dynamos duo of Frank Makarati and Amon Mvula.
Chicken Inn defender Shepherd Mhlanga and Tapiwa Sibanda of Cranborne Bullets were also dropped from the training squad that was in camp in Harare.
“Look, this is what we have and we have to do with what we have. I hope these guys that we have selected will go and make the nation proud.
“I would have loved to go with those two youngsters (Antonio and Mutimbanyoka) but it’s work in progress.
“They might follow to Cameroon, from what I heard, so that they get that experience. But for now, I think these guys that we have will do a very good job for us,” said Mapeza.
Zimbabwe’s options were weakened after in-form Aston Villa midfielder Marvelous Nakamba, Marshal Munetsi of French Ligue 1 side Reims and Wigan Athletics’ Tendayi Darikwa and Brenda Galloway were ruled out through injury.
Talented forward Khama Billiat, who plays for Kaizer Chiefs in South Africa, announced last month that he had retired from international football. Mapeza had been hoping to change his mind, but Billiat has stuck to his decision, for now.
However, the Zimbabwe coach said he was happy with the players at his disposal and proposed friendly matches against Sudan and AFCON 2021 hosts Cameroon, which will be key to work on his team’s combinations.
“So far, so good, I can’t complain about the preparations. We have had about three days of training but I think we will do our final preparations when we get to Cameroon.
“The good part of it is that we are going to have about two friendly games and this will give me an opportunity to work on combinations. I just hope everything goes well when we get there,” said Mapeza.
Warriors team manager, Wellington Mpandare, confirmed the proposed friendly matches against Sudan and Cameroon.
“We managed to secure a friendly match with Sudan on January 2 (this Sunday) and we are finalising our negotiations with Cameroon to play on January 4.
“As we speak right now, I am also talking to the general manager of Cameroon and we have an agreement in place. So those are the two games that we play, barring any eventualities,” said Mpandare.
The Warriors left in two batches yesterday. The first batch that comprised Godknows Murwira, Peter Muduhwa and three officials left via South Africa in the morning. They were later expected to join the larger group, that left in the afternoon, in Ethiopia, where they spent the night.
Zimbabwe are in Group B at the 2021 AFCON tournament along with Malawi, Senegal and Guinea. The Warriors will play their first two group matches against Senegal and Malawi at Kouekong Stadium in Bafoussam on January 10 and January 14.
Warriors AFCON 2021 Squad
GOALKEEPERS: Petros Mhari (FC Platinum), Martin Mapisa (FC Zamora), Talbert Shumba (Free State Stars)
DEFENDERS: Peter Muduwa (Highlanders), Alec Mudimu (Torpedo Kutaisi), Takudzwa Chimwemwe (Nkana), Jordan Zemura (AFC Bournemouth), Godknows Murwira, Gerald Takwara (Venda Football Academy), Teenage Hadebe (Houston Dynamo), Bruce Kangwa (Azam), Onismor Bhasera (SuperSport United)
MIDFIELDERS: Kelvin Madzongwe (FC Platinum), Thabani Kamusoko (Zesco United), Never Tigere (Azam), Kudakwashe Mahachi (SuperSport United), Ishmael Wadi (JDR Stars), Kundai Benyu (Vestri)
STRIKERS: Admiral Muskwe (Luton Town), Prince Dube (Azam) David Moyo (Hamilton Academical) Knowledge Musona (Al-Tai) Tinotenda Kadewere (Olympique Lyonnais)