By Ryan Bailey
On a recent visit to his homeland, the U12 and U13 Academy coach worked to empower local communities through soccer, education and nutrition initiatives
CHARLOTTE—During a 17-year professional career, Patrick Daka played soccer across three continents, including seven seasons in the Queen City with the Charlotte Eagles.
Before playing in the U.S. and Germany, Charlotte FC’s U12 and U13 head coach started his soccer journey in his native Zimbabwe.
“In Zimbabwe, soccer is life!” says Daka. “It’s like a religion. When the national team is playing, nothing else happens.”
The gifted forward represented his national team on numerous occasions and experienced the raucous atmosphere of Zimbabwean top-flight soccer when he played for his hometown Premier Soccer League side, the Black Aces.
“When you are in the locker room, you hear the singing and banging on the bleachers,” he says. “Then you walk out of the tunnel and the stadium explodes—it’s electric!”
In a nation affected by political instability and widespread poverty, soccer is a universal source of unity and positivity. It has, however, been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19: the 2020 Premier Soccer League season was cancelled in its entirety after plans for a “bubble” league were shelved. Only smaller academies and clubs are currently playing the beautiful game.
On his most recent trip back to his hometown of Chitungwiza over the holidays, Daka visited local academies and schools, using his charitable foundation to help and inspire less-fortunate children.
Since 2004, Daka has run the Friendship Foundation for Zimbabwe (FFZ), a charity that promotes youth empowerment through soccer, in addition to funding clean water and school meal programs.
At St. Mark’s school in the nearby rural town of Chetugu, the FFZ foundation has provided invaluable assistance to children from impoverished backgrounds.
“I run a project at St Mark’s, where we try to offer a hot meal once a day to the entire school,” says Daka. “The kids come from the poorest of the poor in Zimbabwe, and some of them would go a full day without a meal without our assistance. The program has really helped with attendance and participation in class.”
FFZ also operates a clean water initiative, which can make a life-saving difference to the communities in which Daka was raised.
“Most households in the area don’t have running water,” he says. “So, we buy $50 water filters from California and ship them to rural and high density areas.”
In addition to providing food and water sanitation, FFZ aims to help the youngsters of Chitungwiza who aspire to play soccer at the highest level. On his most recent trip, Daka visited the Dreamer’s Academy, a program that operates in the neighborhood in which he grew up. He provides coaching and organizes donations of sports equipment.
“Whenever I go home, I always go back and support the Dreamer’s Academy,” says Daka. “For the players, there is power in seeing someone who grew up in their same shoes, playing on the same fields, coming back and saying ‘this can be done if you are focused and disciplined’.
“I try to try and inspire the coaches, the academies and the players.”
On his latest trip to the academy, Daka was able to provide some well-received donations of Charlotte FC merchandise and apparel.
“They absolutely loved the Charlotte FC merch!” says Daka. “They keep sending me pictures wearing the gear. Most people there had not heard of Charlotte—but now they have!”
Over the years, much of the work carried out by FFZ has been personally funded by Daka, who has frequently staged soccer camps in Charlotte to raise funds. The foundation, however, has always relied upon the generosity of Charlotte soccer families, teams and local companies.
Despite the effects of malnutrition, rudimentary facilities and the scarcity of equipment—cleats are beyond the financial means of many—the standard of play in Zimbabwe is very high.
“The players in the academies are really, really good,” says Daka. “Some of the most creative players I’ve ever seen are there.
“If I took an American youth team to play in Zimbabwe, you would see two distinctly different styles of play on the same field. The American group would be organized and disciplined, while the local group would be less organized, but very individually creative.
“That’s how they view the game: for them, it is all about self-expression. But in terms of talent and individual skill, it is very comparable.”
The highly experienced youth coach advocates for the high quality of undiscovered talent on the African continent, and particularly Zimbabwe, which is seldom scouted by western teams.
“Very few players have a direct route from Zimbabwe to Europe or the U.S. I would like to open up that conversation.”
Daka is grateful for the continued support of the Charlotte community in his mission to assist and empower youth in Zimbabwe.
“We use soccer as a tool, but one of our biggest focuses is on education,” says Daka. “If less than one per cent of players turn pro, what about the rest? Hence, we try to encourage everyone to focus on school. That’s why we want to feed them, so they can attend and participate.
“Our vision is to be a catalyst for social change and economic empowerment in Zimbabwe. And there’s so much good that we can do as a club and community can do there.”