Can Nyasha Mushekwi finally deliver for Zimbabwe?

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By Simba Mushati – Special to KweséESPN

Zimbabwe striker Nyasha Mushekwi is a man on fire, with his run of 10 goals and three assists in 12 appearances for Diafan Yifang culminating in a first Warriors call-up since the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) finals.

Zimbabwe play Congo on September 9, before back-to-back fixtures against DR Congo a month later. Coach Sunday Chidzambwa’s men currently top Group G on goal-difference after dismissing Liberia 3-0 in the opening round.

Mushekwi had remained on the sidelines over the last year-and-a-half, with some reports speculating he had been banned from national team activities along with former skipper Willard Katsande for their part in the disturbances which rocked Zimbabwe’s build-up to the 2017 finals.

Mushekwi’s consistency since joining Yifang during the last two seasons has provided compelling evidence of his abiding potency in front of goal.

Never one of the most gifted of footballers around – he actually started off as a top-notch basketball player – Mushekwi’s rise to fame has been underpinned by an unyielding resolve to keep pushing the boundaries.

What still remains in doubt, however, is whether the former CAPS United man is finally ready to replicate his club form on the international stage, something that has proved a tall order in the past.

After making his international breakthrough with a memorable brace to stir Zimbabwe to a 3-1 win over Zambia in the 2009 COSAFA Cup final, Mushekwi has won just 17 caps and netted six goals.

This is not exactly the level of return many would have expected from the bustling centre forward, although his former coach at CAPS, Lloyd Chitembwe, insists that the international record does not necessarily imply failure on the part of Mushekwi.

“When it comes to the Warriors, you cannot judge Mushekwi solely on the number of goals he has scored,” Chitembwe told KweséESPN.

“Mushekwi benefits the team in many other ways. He is like [Chelsea striker Olivier] Giroud, who is a regular in the French team, even when he is not scoring that often.”

Indeed, Mushekwi’s physical presence keeps defences on their toes and creates opportunities for his teammates to capitalise on.

Mushekwi actually played basketball in secondary school and featured in the Zimbabwe Basketball League before deciding his interests were better served elsewhere.

“When the whole soccer thing started it was just to keep fit,” he told the Independent newspaper back in 2009. “I was looking for something to keep me running in the basketball off-season. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I fell in love with soccer. It was challenging, and that motivated me.”

He emerged as top goal-scorer in his first season in the Zimbabwe top-flight in 2009 with 21 goals. He moved to Mamelodi Sundowns the following year, scoring 28 goals in 79 appearances.

During his two seasons in the Chinese second tier, Mushekwi scored 35 goals in 59 games and laid on another seven.

There were genuine misgivings about his ability to win a starting birth upon Yifang’s promotion to the top-flight.

The 31-year-old failed to make the matchday squad for the team’s five matches in the Chinese FA Cup at the beginning of the year, as well as the first six league matches of the campaign.

But once he got a chance, he made full use of it, netting four and creating another in his first five appearances. He has missed only two of the six matches played since then.

“That alone shows his character,” Chitembwe added. “He is very disciplined and determined but, more importantly, he listens and does not easily get put off. You can shout at him all you want, but he doesn’t sulk like other players do. He will continue to concentrate and to work hard.”

For his part, Warriors coach Chidzambwa is hoping Mushekwi can finally become the centre-forward the Warriors have long been yearning for. The two first teamed up at the 2009 COSAFA Cup tournament, with Chidzambwa the man in the dugout.

“He is very strong, very good in the air, and he has a deadly left foot,” Chidzambwa told KweséESPN. “But I think part of the reason why he has not yet made headlines for the Warriors is because he has not played that many games.

“Now he is in great form, and I am sure in the coming months he is going to prove he can perform just as well for Zimbabwe.”

A lot was expected from Mushekwi at the 2017 AFCON finals, which came after he had just scored 16 goals and notched four assists in the Chinese second tier.

By the end of the tournament though, many were criticising then coach Calisto Pasuwa for persisting with the former Sundowns man while overlooking Tendai Ndoro.

Mushekwi’s rivals for the centre-forward position this time around include Evans Rusike and new kid on the block Tino Kadewere, who possess both the goal threat and the technique which his compatriots lack.

That would give Chidzambwa an impressive range of options going towards the 2019 AFCON finals, but for now he needs Mushekwi to maintain his form … starting with the trip to Congo.