I BET there are quite a few countries on the globe that look at Zimbabwe with some admiration, wondering how a country whose own national team is often the butt of jokes has such a rare record in producing good footballers.
By Enock Muchinjo
It is a curious case, really: a player in this European country and another there, each with different stories of success to tell.
Closer to home, just across the border in South Africa, Zimbabwean players have turned on the style in that country’s Premier Soccer League with men like Tinashe Nengomasha, Knowledge Musona, Willard Katsande and lately Khama Billiat gaining fame in more recent times.
Indeed, it is truly remarkable how many Zimbabwean footballers are churned out each year.
While not all go on to achieve greatness — the amount of talent in this country is unbelievable — in every new generation that comes out we have become accustomed to that one or two players will turn to be truly something special.
Someone is always looking to take the next major step in their career.
Like Marvelous Nakamba.
The Warriors midfielder might not have kicked a ball yet in England for his new Premier League club Aston Villa, but that he has become the fourth purebred Zimbabwean to play in the world’s best football competition — where others can only dream of contributing one — is another feather in the cap of sport in this country.
Curiously, again, glancing through the short list of the Warriors to have been part of the EPL — Bruce Grobbelaar, Peter Ndlovu, Benjani Mwaruwari, and now Marvelous Nakamba — one will easily pick out something that is quite striking.
None of these players have roots in Harare, the capital city, naturally the biggest catchment area for talent and hotbed for sporting activity in the country.
These fantastic footballers and great human beings are iconic Zimbabweans who must be celebrated as such, not seen through the lens of geographical backgrounds.
I have absolutely no intention to stir regional debate.
My point is a simple one — if as a country we are able to produce four good players for the Premier League in England, and all four are not from the nation’s largest urban area — then surely there is a beautiful story to tell here of the vast amount of talent even in some of the remotest places of Zimbabwe.
A lot of it remains untapped. It might never be.
But it is always a cause for great excitement when the cream rises to the top, as in the case of Nakamba who hails from, of all places, the tiny mining community of Hwange — so small everyone pretty much knows everyone.
Being a soccer player, playing in the best domestic football league on earth, it is hard to imagine anybody from Hwange emerging anytime soon to dislodge Nakamba as the town’s favourite son.
Nakamba is a prodigious talent, no doubt, a player with star quality, and he has the temperament and inner drive to transform himself into one of the biggest personalities in Zimbabwean sport for many years to come.
Again, being from football, the nation’s heartbeat, Nakamba will be the one everyone is talking about.
It is easy, in the midst of euphoria surrounding Nakamba, to forget that there are in fact two other quality international sportsmen from, again of all places, Hwange, currently representing Zimbabwe with distinction at the moment.
Biselele Tshamala and Royal Mwale are key members of Zimbabwe’s national team that has recorded a 100% win record so far in the continent’s only recognised Test championship of the year.
Both are superb athletes and one gets a feeling that given another time and place, perhaps another sporting discipline, one of them would have reached much dizzier heights as a professional sportsman.
Tshamala, Hwange-born son of Congolese nationals, has grown over a short time to become one of the natural team leaders within the Sables set-up.
The 28-year-old flank particularly came into his own in the last two Zimbabwe wins against Uganda and Kenya—the honour of the team’s vice-captaincy bestowed upon him in those Tests clearly giving him a huge lift.
In a department in which Zimbabwe is traditionally spoilt for choice, Tshamala has given the nation extra option in ball-carrying ability, breakdown menace and a huge work rate.
As for the hooker Mwale, his cameo roles for the team are no less valued by teammates and coaches alike.
He turns out for Benfica Rugby Club in Lisbon, meaning that if Aston Villa happens to be in the Portuguese capital for a European tie, the ever-smiling Mwale can share a cup of coffee with the equally affable Nakamba over stories of home, of Hwange, growing up and realising their dream in spite of small-town background.
Some of the finest sportsmen in history hail from very tiny places, and in the case of Zimbabwe, this is an interesting time.
Whilst we have two national rugby players from Hwange in a winning team, there are also two from Mutare — genuine talents born and raised there.
Centre Ngoni Chibuwe, at 24, is fast developing into a core member of the squad.
Young 20-year-old Martin Mangongo, the other easterner in the side, has got quite a few people in Zimrugby really excited about his amazing athletic ability with the field in front of him.
I would hate to put pressure on the young man, but he has begun his international career like a house on fire, a shoe-in at fullback for the Sables in the last two of his first three Tests for the country.
Coming from a much smaller place where there may be few role models, family becomes hugely important in the development of a budding sportsman.
I read elsewhere last week quite an enthralling story of how Marvelous Nakamba’s father Antony, himself an ex-footballer, encouraged his son’s dream in the formative days right through to being an English Premier League player.
Growing up in Mutare, Martin Mangongo, too, benefited from strong family support.
His dad Gibson Mangongo, an upstanding community man in Mutare devoted to the uplifting of society and sport in his city, was the biggest and earliest influence on him.
Then there is uncle Stephen Mangongo, his dad’s young brother — former Zimbabwe cricket coach — pretty much the Sables newcomer’s sporting godfather.
When Steve was down in Mutare coaching Manicaland, the youngster’s primary sport was cricket, as well as being a brilliant athlete.
He took up rugby for the first time while in senior school at Hillcrest College in the eastern city. St George’s College in Harare then tabled a scholarship offer, with uncle Steve taking him under his wing in the capital before Peterhouse came knocking with an even bigger scholarship.
Now he has taken his talents overseas, to the French club rugby scene. It’s not the riches of the English Premier League, where Nakamba is now, but it is somewhere.
The key message is that while you might come from Hwange, or from Mutare, all that matters is where you are going.