Immigrants contributed greatly to local football

FOR several decades, immigrants and their offspring have been significant contributors to the Zimbabwean society and way of life from the era of white minority rule to this day.

Enock Muchinjo,Sports Journalist

Benjani Mwaruwari
Benjani Mwaruwari

This article — an effort to examine, if not quantify the role of these esteemed citizens in particularly shaping the football landscape of Zimbabwe — is the product of a recent social interaction with media colleagues.

During a recent conversation over drinks with media colleagues, it became clear people of Malawian, Zambian and Mozambican origin, besides other areas, contributed greatly to Zimbabwean football over many years. So this article would serve not only as a chronicle of this remarkable part of the history of the sport in this country, but also as an appropriate tribute to immigrants and their descendants who contributed immensely to local football.

It had been such a pleasant interchange with colleagues up until it was suggested that as the only sports hack on the table, I should one day write an article on this subject; the great contribution of this community to the sport of football in Zimbabwe over the years, and across different generations.

While I have been fortunate enough to follow the careers of many of these fine footballers who trace their roots to mainly three neighbouring countries, Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique, the biggest challenge though is that an equally good number of such players, at my young age, played well before my time.

But being of Malawian extraction myself, I have enjoyed the privilege of growing up within circle of much older family members who lived with, watched and thus evoked memories of yesteryear stars with roots mainly in “The Warm Heart of Africa” — Malawi.

My father, who arrived in this country as young man during the federation era, is often at loss for superlatives to properly describe a mean goal-scoring by the name Alec Masanjala, who had amassed an astonishing amount of goals for Mangula Mine Football Club sometime in the 1970s and was one of the country’s most feared strikers.

Locally-born to a migrant Malawian father who was a one of the shift managers at Mangula Mine, Masanjala wore the number 9 shirt in an era the digit on the shirt was not just a number, but a statement, a danger warning sign and a strong message to opponents.

He was particularly strong in the air, it is said, and a huge chunk of his goals were scored with his head. Interestingly, another player of the same foreign origin, Makwinji Soma-Phiri and his brother Amin, would bear the same traits in much later years — an amazing ability to score a glut of goals with their head.

Playing in Mozambique sometime before Independence for a Salisbury Select side against a club composed mostly of local white Portuguese players, Masanjala is said to have scored a hat-trick of beautiful headers in Maputo to ensure victory for the team from Southern Rhodesia.

While Masanjala was not from the colony’s capital, Salisbury, he had been included in the Salisbury side, alongside the famous Chieza brothers, his teammates at Mangula, as guest players.

But with his father later being pensioned off at Mangula Mine and subsequently relocating to his native Malawi, young Masanjala’s career in this country was left in limbo. He initially stayed on in Mangula, but would later join his family in Malawi where he played for several top-flight clubs before retiring.

It must also be remembered that mining communities and high-density suburbs in urban areas from Salisbury, Bulawayo, Gwelo, Que Que, Fort Victoria, Wankie, Shabani, Gatooma to Mangula were the catchment areas for black soccer players. The majority of inhabitants in these areas were then migrants and their descendants.

Certain clubs, in particular the country’s most successful team, Dynamos, have an inherent hereditary “bias” towards players of Malawian and Zambian origin.One such player is club legend and former national team captain Moses Chunga, born in Harare in a Malawian family, and to his legion of fans simply the most naturally gifted Zimbabwean footballer ever to grace a football pitch in this country.

This is not to stoke the timeless debate on who was a better player between him and Warriors legend Peter Ndlovu, but just to illustrate a point.

Another prolific scorer with known Malawian derivation had also been the great Peter Nyama, another firm favourite of my father, and a man who, in fact, is recognised as having scored the highest ever number of goals in a domestic season in this country, recording an incredible 62 goals in 1971 for Chibuku Shumba. Nyama also played club football in the land of his forefathers, Malawi.

Quite interestingly, the first footballer I actually idolised as a young boy was a man I never actually saw in action — Joel Shambo, who had family roots in Mozambique.

Hailing from a much smaller place like Mutare, minorities have quite a close circle of associates, and the Shambos were good family friends of ours.

Though Harare-born, most of the CAPS United legend’s family were settled in Mutare. My late maternal grandfather, also Malawian origin, was bosom buddies with Joel’s father, whom I remember as an ever-cheerful old chap who frequented my grandparents’ house in Devonshire — a neighborhood historically occupied by families of migrant railway workers.

Shambo Snr was well-known in the neighbourhood by his nickname Mamunamkuru (the old man), and him and grandpa were patrons of the Maoresa Bar in Sakubva, where they drank the day away in their retirement days.

I think I met Joel Shambo on a few occasions as a youngster, but the connection with his family was good enough for me to view him as some kind of a cult hero. Also, my uncles, who were teenage boys then, fanatically followed his career and were in absolute awe of him.

Shambo, who is now late, is considered to be one of Zimbabwe’s finest football stars ever.

In much later years, Lazarus Muhoni, another son of a Mutare family very close to ours, would have the honour of scoring the all-important goal for Zimbabwe, in the 1-0 defeat of Mali in 2003, a game that set the Warriors captained by Ndlovu on the path to its first ever Africa Cup qualification in 2004.

The Muhonis are also very proud of their Malawian roots, and Lazarus and my three cousins are band members of the CCAP Sakubva, a gospel outfit which sings in both Chewa and Shona.

While still in Mutare, Joseph Kabwe, whose brothers Protasho also played top-flight football in Zimbabwe, is spoken of by hometown friends and opponents alike as the most naturally gifted footballer to come out of the border city in recent times, with some even placing him ahead of the late CAPS dribbling wizard Blessing Makunike.

Kabwe now lives in the United States, and his family originates from Zambia.

Casting the net wider, my best Zimbabwean footballer with traceable roots beyond our borders would be, by a margin, the great Warriors goal-scorer, Agent Sawu.

A powerful centre-forward with a much-feared goal-scoring instinct, Bulawayo-born Sawu, with roots in Malawi, was a football striker well ahead of his time and I’m sure had he played in a later era, he would certainly have caught the attention of clubs in much bigger leagues than Switzerland and China, where he spent part of his professional career.

True, we live in an era in which skillful and stylish forwards such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar, the remodelled kind of strikers, are the global superstars of the game — but that Leicester City are on the threshold of achieving one of the most staggering feats in the history of the English game, thanks chiefly to the goals of one Jamie Vardy — the old-fashioned goal-sniffing number 9 — is proof that players of Sawu’s qualities are still vital to teams’ success, and that the seemingly dying art of traditional centre-forwards is alive after all.

The Shacky Tauro, Ronaldo (original), Ruud van Nistelrooy, Didier Drogba, or Robert Lewandowski type.

The topic of Zimbabwean football stars of foreign lineage will, of course, be incomplete without mentioning Benjani Mwaruwari, the former national team captain.

In terms of accrued income from the game, Mwaruwari will simply be the most successful Zimbabwean footballer of our time because unlike others before him, including Ndlovu who played in the English Premier League much longer, a lot of them probably more talented, Benjani made a break through into the European leagues when football had been packaged as a prime sought-after commodity by big commercial forces and multi-million dollar global corporates.

Raised in his place of birth, Bulawayo, the former AJ Auxerre, Manchester City and Portsmouth forward courted controversy with remarks almost 10 years ago that he would have done a much noble thing had he chosen to play for Malawi, his father’s homeland, instead of the country which ushered him into the world and gave him the platform to showcase his footballing talents.

These days, Zimbabwe’s national team, at any given time, comprises of at least some 30%-40% of players with roots in the region. In the past it used to be 50% and above. Back in the early days of Independence, players of Malawian, Zambian and Mozambican origin actually formed the core of the Zimbabwe national team. One such team was built around the likes of goalkeeper Frank Mkanga, then there were such men as Joseph Zulu, Ephert Lungu, David Mwanza, Raphael Phiri, Friday Phiri, Shambo, Chunga and Tauro – who all had regional lineage.

In the end, I will not claim this to be the complete and all-inclusive story of Zimbabwean football in relation to players of Malawian, Zambian and Mozambican origin because it is not. Others will have their own stories to tell. Suffice to say there are scores of such other players out there.

I have preferred this to be more of a personal account, told from personal encounters and also recollections from my associations and work as a sports writer.

Where I was not around and hence unable to tell this story more accurately, I have used outmost discretion to measure accuracy, particularly the story of Masanjala as told to me by my father.

Also, the long acknowledged fact that descendants of immigrants form a significant percentage of Zimbabwe’s population means that by extension, people of this origin would naturally also have a big presence in the country’s most popular sport and other spheres of life.

Trying to go deeper with an article of this nature would have meant a lengthy piece examining everyone with names like Danny Phiri, Cuthbert Malajila, Khama Billiat, Eric Chipeta, Moses Mafulila, Watson Muhoni, David Mkandawire, Danisa Phiri and many others.

Bear in mind, also, that as a result of the partition of the continent during colonisation, family members were split on either side of the border and different nationalities created from among relatives, making it difficult and slightly complicated to classify some citizens whose family names might actually do sound somewhat exotic.

What is not difficult to see, though, is the indelible mark on the Zimbabwean football scene made by the players mentioned in this article, and many others left out whose origins are also in the concerned three countries in the region.

Muchinjo is a journalist and former Zimbabwe Independent reporter.