Goalkeepers are only ever a moment away from death or glory.
The nature of their craft ensures that they face a unique kind of pressure. No other position on the football field demands so much.
Young keepers face an immediate sink or swim assessment. There is no time to play themselves into a team’s starting line-up.
Opportunity is typically the result of luck or misfortune. An injury or suspension to the incumbent offering a chance to the aspirant. Perform well and they have the chance to keep the gloves, anything less than accomplished performance will see them demoted, waiting once again for the chance to show what they can do in the first team.
Goalkeepers are the loneliest players on the pitch. There is no one to hold their hand, talk them through the game or fight their physical battles. Theirs is a solitary game. Consistency is key. They cannot let their form slip or they are out of the team – they battle themselves as much as opponents.
Goalkeeping mistakes are impossible to ignore – they often lead to opposition goals. As a result their performance is scrutinized in the harshest of manners.
It takes a special combination of attributes to succeed as a goalkeeper – technical, physical and pyshoclogical.
Tatenda Mukuruva is a special young goalkeeper.
Only 20, he is already established as Zimbabwe’s first choice keeper – a player of rare potential.
He burst on the scene with Dynamos FC in Harare, and was a league champion while still a high school senior in 2014. And was outstanding in his first full season as the team finished second in the Zimbabwe championship.
A bright, intelligent and amiable young man, Mukuruva was at one point considering pursuing scholarship options to enter the USA college system. But his startlingly mature transition to senior football in Zimbabwe changed that plan. Not that the keeper, who was nicknamed Iker after the great Casillas, let it go to his head.
“I try to be a normal student at school, but the respect I am getting is just too much . . . everyone just wants to chat with me. I always tell my friends I am still their old Tatenda who is in the same class with them, but it seems they now view me as a super hero,” he told the Sunday Mail shortly after his professional debut.
But since going full time with Dynamos he has emerged as one of the most promising young keepers in Africa.
Hardly the most physically imposing of keepers at 180 cm Mukuruva’s qualities lie in his athleticism, anticipation and bravery. He is never shy in coming to claim a cross and, although capable of spectacular saves, his positional sense means that he can keep the acrobatics to a minimum. He is also confident with the ball at his feet and possesses a mighty kick but needs to work on his distribution.
His form fluctuated during 2016 as Dynamos struggled in the league. Playing behind an inconsistent defence in a team distracted by financial uncertainty, Dynamos struggled to pay wages on time last year, can’t have helped. And Mukuruva endured questions about his form, concentration and overconfidence in coming for crosses.
Of course he has room to improve, but he is very promising. It is exceedingly rare for such a young player to establish themselves as the national team’s first choice goalie.
Mukuruva made his international debut against Malawi in June 2015. The then 19-year-old was aware of the responsibility on his shoulders.
“This is a sacred jersey, not guaranteed at all and one has to work hard for it because there are a number of good goalkeepers out there,” he told Zimbabwean media.
Zimbabwe manger Calliston Pasuwa is clearly a big fan and demonstrated his faith by picking Mukuruva as his first choice keeper for the 2017 AFCON.
This selection caused controversy with many domestic commentators questioning whether the young keeper deserved his place in what some are calling the strongest ever Zimbabwe team.
“A national team goalkeeper has to be criticised a bit,” former national team keeper Tapuwa Kapini told the Chronicle newspaper in a recent interview.
“It is important because that is how we can measure his ability to deal with pressure. Tatenda has to go there and prove his critics wrong, myself included. That’s the pressure that comes with being the Warriors’ number one and he has to learn to cope.”
“I have nothing against Tate, he is a brother because he went to school with my younger brother Issa Sadiki at Prince Edward. He usually visits our home and we talk about our goalkeeping trade. Mukuruva is still young and he needs all the support he can get. I say to him ‘boy go there and enjoy, relax and show what you can do’,”Kapini added.
Others have been quick to defend the youngster, including another former Dynamos and national team keeper criticised for his lack of stature, Japhet Mparutsa.
“I believe the country is in safe hands. He might not be as heavily built and tall like other goalkeepers but his command of the area and great positioning sense makes him stand out. On countless occasions he has pulled spectacular saves bordering on the incredible,” Mparutsa told The Standard.
“Yes, he needs to work on dealing with crosses and his ball distribution. If he can continue to work on those two areas, like what he told me he has been doing, it will definitely stand him in good stead for a move abroad. All he has to do is keep his feet firmly on the ground and remain humble and the sky is the limit.”
Mukuruva is the second youngest goalkeeper at the 2017 AFCON after Kouakou Hervé Koffi of Burkina Faso. Many eyes will be watching his, and the Warriors’, progress closely.
ZIM keeper Tatenda Mukuruva has all the makings of a cult hero. Baby-faced, streak-haired, pink-clad, vague sense of impending haplessness.
— Jonathan Wilson (@jonawils) January 15, 2017
His contract with Dynamos expired in December 2016. He is believed to have received an offer from Zimbabwe cup holders Ngezi Platinum Stars and South African clubs Free State Stars and Jomo Cosmos. And Mukuruva is thought to be waiting to see if bids from other foreign teams materialize after the AFCON, one of the most heavily scouted tournaments in world football.
Whatever his next destination his future looks bright.
Mukuruva is a highly promising keeper and so far is winning friends in football’s loneliest position.