For Norman Mapeza, football comes full circle

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Enock Muchinjo

IN the prime of his playing days, Norman Mapeza featured in the most prestigious club competition in world football, the Uefa Champions League.
Internationally, his best accomplishment, at personal level, was captaining his country Zimbabwe — a leader of quiet dignity and grace, well-respected by teammates and the public alike.

At team level, Mapeza did not achieve anything of note with Zimbabwe. The Warriors only started qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations in 2004, three years after the retirement of the former Galatasaray utility player.

They say statistics don’t lie, and sure, Mapeza’s generation cannot cheat the numbers here.In sport, though, some of the most enchanting debates are when the statistics are put aside for a moment, when other qualities that appeal to sports lovers — forget the numbers game — are allowed to flourish in discussions: Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo, Sachin Tendulkar v Brian Lara, Michael Jordan v LeBron James.

Mapeza’s generation of Warriors, for one willing to look deeper into the history, cannot be said to be a poor one at all.Theirs, for goodness’ sake, was a team good enough to go undefeated in combined 10 Nations Cup and World Cup qualification matches — a side that came just 90 minutes away from qualifying for the 1994 World Cup finals in the United States.

Mapeza — a classy player who fitted in comfortably at wing-back, central defence or holding midfield role — was a mainstay of that squad, a group of players that forced its way into the national consciousness with one charming performance after another under the tutelage of the late Reinhard Fabisch, the equally well-loved Zimbabwe national team coach from Germany.

After hanging up his boots at the turn of the millennium, Mapeza ventured into coaching. In 2008, he announced his arrival as a coach in typical style, guiding Motomotapa FC—a young but ambitious club—to Zimbabwe’s top-flight league title.

Monomotapa had arrived in the Premier Soccer League (PSL) equipped with strong financial backing and organisational competences, which gave the striving club a competitive edge on the transfer market to complement their squad with young players from the club’s youth ranks.

But for a good 15 years, only AmaZulu had dared interrupt the dominance of Zimbabwe’s Big Three clubs—Dynamos, Highlanders and CAPS United—with the Bulawayo outfit winning the league title in 2003 before the traditional giants restored the old order thereafter as if to remind little AmaZulu and others like them of their lowly place on the country’s football landscape.

So it needed something quite special for Monomotapa to gatecrash the elite party, and Mapeza proved to be that something special. A young coach of 36 then, he was able to quickly turn around the fortunes of a club that had lost five matches early in the season, leading the unheralded bunch of players to an unlikely title at the end of the year.

And then nine years later, after success had stubbornly eluded the wealthy new club FC Platinum since 2011 — with some of the country’s best football brains at the helm — who else but Norman Mapeza knew how to finally turn the Zvishavane miners into champions of Zimbabwe for the first time in their history.

While in 2008 Mapeza had defied the Big Three to make Monomotapa kings of Zimbabwean football, in 2017 with Platinum he pulled down the great barrier erected by teams from the country’s biggest two cities, Harare and Bulawayo.

No club from outside these two domineering places had until then been crowned champions in the football history of the Southern African country.To underline his growing reputation, Mapeza guided Platinum to a second consecutive title in 2018.

Then sometime mid-last season, with Platinum in pole position to make it three in a row, Mapeza did the unthinkable. He resigned as coach of Platinum, a position seen as a dream job in Zimbabwean sport, a role the best of them will only vacate when pushed out, the more so in a torrid economic environment where joblessness is a curse.

With speculation still rife over the real reasons behind Mapeza’s Platinum departure, and his next destination, it was announced weeks later that the former Zimbabwe captain had agreed to take over the reins at struggling South African Premiership club Chippa United.

A pessimistic stream of reaction went into overdrive: What has gotten into Mapeza, leaving what appears to be a secure position and go to a club like Chippa? That job, everybody knows, is not for the faint-hearted. Wealthy entrepreneur Siviwe “Chippa” Mpengesi, the owner of Chippa United, does as he pleases with his club. He changes coaches like socks.

But model professionals like Mapeza never doubt their own instinct. Self-belief is part of the DNA of a good coach.He has quickly transformed Chippa, winning five games in six outings—including Wednesday’s away 2-1 win at Black Leopards—to haul the Eastern Cape side from the relegation zone to 10th place.
Mapeza’s first coaching job outside Zimbabwe has proved a worthy gamble so far.

But Mpengesi is Mpengesi, and one move—or result –is all it takes to turn things around in football. Just like others before him, chances are high that Mapeza will be sacked by the trigger-happy self-made millionaire.

After that, a matter of when rather than if — the case always for whoever is coaching Chippa United — you ,however, get the good feeling that Mapeza has already made an impression on South African football to go beyond his current role, securing himself a long future in the game in that country.

His track record as a coach at home in Zimbabwe has been impeccable. But this must feel like starting all over again, having to prove his mettle again, in a more professional and demanding environment—the same feeling he had when he left local club Darry n T for Poland as a 21-year-old player over two decades ago.

South Africa could be the launching pad for a more fulfilling career as a coach. For an African player who made the grade and played European Champions League football in those early years, Mapeza will know that the sky is the limit as he begins a new chapter of his footballing life.

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