OFF THE PITCH WITH A GENIUS OF THE AFRICAN GAME
By Murithi Mutiga
Not even Shakespeare could have written such a script. With only 20 minutes to go before the end of a crucial African Nations Cup qualifier against Liberia in Lusaka, Zambia was in deep trouble.
They badly needed a goal to book a place in Egypt 2006. But the Liberians were proving dogged opposition and the Chipolopolo players appeared to lack the guile or craft to break down the opposition.
Then the twist in the plot. The Zambia coach, the nation’s most famous son, the man who singularly lifted the country from the throes of deepest despair after the 1993 Gabon air disaster, stepped up to the plate.
He took off his tracksuit, strapped on his boots, came onto the pitch and curled home a sweetly struck freekick to send his nation to the African Nations Cup.
It was not the first time Kalusha Bwalya was performing a miracle for his country but that moment enhanced the cult-like stature he enjoys in Zambia, where perceptions of the legend blur the fine line between man and myth.
Says Ponga Liwewe, Communications Manager of trans-continental satellite TV station, Supersport, who has known Bwalya since his youth:
"It’s easy to see why Kalusha is regarded as a hero across all of Africa. His achievements on the pitch have been truly outstanding. The longevity of his career and the way he has maintained his form throughout is remarkable. So, too is the fact that he delivers in the most crucial situations. Above all, the manner in which he has retained his humility despite all these achievements makes him a shining model for the game on the continent."
The statistics tell the story. Bwalya has played in six African Nations Cup tournaments and, in 1988, became the first — and to date only — player from southern Africa to be voted African Player of the Year. He has been capped more than 100 times and scored half a century of goals for his country, besides a staggering array of great goals he scored in a glittering 20-year club career.
Last week, Bwalya granted Fever Pitch audience over dinner at a Nairobi restaurant.
Bwalya is of medium height and he walks with an erect carriage. He has piercing eyes and large hands, which he moves constantly to illustrate his point.
He talks fast and is so eloquent and skilful in his handling of questions that, stumbling into the interview, a person with no idea who Bwalya is would instantly assume the man is a career UN diplomat rather than one of, some would say the, best footballers this continent has produced.
"I feel privileged to have been able to play football for so long and achieve what I have. I would have preferred to play even more Nations Cup tournaments. But if you put it in perspective, footballers tend to take a lot of credit for things which people in other walks of life do routinely. My mother was a teacher for more than 33 years. My grandfather worked in the mines all his life. Many ordinary people achieve remarkable feats in life, but do not enjoy the attention and focus, which footballers do in their lives," said Bwalya.
Bwalya, certainly, has been the focus of a great deal of attention since he was a teenager.
From the moment he stepped onto a football pitch in the copper belt town of Mufulira, it was obvious the young man was blessed with outrageous talent. He was given his first start for Mufulira Blackpool, his hometown club, at 16 and with his deft left foot and penchant for beating several men at a time, he became an instant hit. Says Liwewe, like Bwalya, a son of Mufulira: "It sums up how good Kalusha was that by the time he was 16, he could not walk in the streets without being mobbed. He and his brother, Benjamin, were sensational. They were filling stadiums across the country every time they played while still in their teens."
Bwalya says it was not always easy to get a game in those days. "Every day, we had to walk about six or eight kilometres to get to the practice pitch. Then, there would be about 40 or 50 guys willing to play but not enough balls. So we had a coach who would make us go through a lot of physical exercises which would discourage guys disgusted at not getting enough time to play with the ball. Eventually, the number of players went down to a manageable level due to the arduous training regime and we got on with the job."
Bwalya was soon poached from Mufulira Blackpool by the more established Mufulira Wanderers, where he chalked up a number of trophies and thrilled fans across the continent, including in the mid-1980s when he came to Nairobi to face then regional giants AFC Leopards.The player moved on to Europe with Belgian club Cercle Brugge and swiftly on to Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven, where he truly established himself as one of the finest players in the world.
Then came the moment that, more than anything else, defines Bwalya.On April 28, 1993, a huge Buffalo CT 15 military plane took off from Lusaka. On board were 30 passengers, including 18 members of the golden generation of Zambian football. As the plane flew over Gabon, something went awfully wrong and they made a fatal plunge into the Atlantic Ocean.
In one fell swoop, an entire complement of some of the finest players to come out of Southern Africa such as the goalkeeping genius Efford Chabala and players such as John Sokor and Eston Mulenga were gone.
Zambia descended into mourning. "It was like having someone stab you in the back. All over Lusaka that day, there was silence. People just huddled in corners while others walked around with a blank look on their faces," says Liwewe.
Bwalya missed the flight by a quirk of circumstance. He had obtained permission to link up with the team late because he had engagements at PSV. He and fellow player Charles Musonda, who also missed the flight, were the only national team players to survive the accident.
The 1993 disaster is not Bwalya’s favourite topic. He answers questions on the subject cautiously and it is plain to see the wounds of losing some of his best friends in one fell swoop are still a bit raw. The biggest lesson he drew from the experience, he said, was the transience of life.
"The spirit within the team was very high. Shortly before (the tragedy) we had played Zimbabwe and beaten Mauritius 3-0. Then the accident happened. It was a very sobering experience. I learnt that you can be here today and gone tomorrow," he said.
The manner in which Bwalya anchored the recovery of the team and spearheaded the launch of a whole new generation of players has to be counted as his life’s signal achievement.
Captained by Bwalya, the team defied all odds and got to the final of the next African Nations Cup where, with the whole continent backing them, they played superbly but narrowly lost to Nigeria.
They also managed to get to within one match of the World Cup, losing away to Morocco in a match where the referee, who by a cruel irony hailed from Gabon, scene of the 1993 crash, was heavily criticised for his officiating.
Sadly, for Zambia, those achievements represented the peak period for the Chipolopolo. The team later descended into a cycle of under-achievement.
Bwalya, who is also vice chairman of the Football Association of Zambia prefers to look ahead counselling that African teams need to be consistent, avoid overhauling teams every time they lose and pay more attention to youth football.
Last week, Bwalya was a guest of Supersport at the National Secondary School Ball Games in Nakuru.
Kenyans can only hope that the exceptional talent on show from schools such as Kakamega High, Thur Gem, Kamukunji High School and Mobasa High School, will make a successful transition to the national team and guide the country to SA 2010.
There, the youngsters will be able to get up close and personal with Kalusha Bwalya, a true legend of African football whose service to the game has been rewarded with an appointment as official ambassador of the first World Cup to be held on African soil.
THE GLORY OF THE GREAT KALU
By Chanda Chisala
After missing that important penalty against Angola that would have probably seen Zambia win the Cosafa Cup, I believe that Kalusha Bwalya has now convincingly established himself as arguably the greatest player that Africa has ever had! Seriously. Missing a penalty was the only thing left on his C.V. to qualify him as a true legend in global soccer. Why? Because all the really great heroes of modern football have had to miss a decisive penalty at a most critical moment in their nation’s aspirations. Think Roberto Baggio, Diego Maradona, David Beckham ……the list goes on – but we can not say “the list is endless” because there are very few such mortals thusly destined.
Someone might say that I am just trying to find an excuse for Kalu’s disappointing spot kick. I am not. I am simply putting him in the best light that Zambians should see him so that we do not lose our great admiration and support for the man. This is a truly great hero that should be worshipped no matter what he does, simply because everything he does, even when it is wrong, always comes in the context of him trying very hard to win. Kalu loves his game and his team so much that he will do anything to regain its glory, and sometimes this will mean making a mistake.
I think taking a penalty was a mistake for Kalu, but it was not a mistake like the one most politicians make when they do things for the sake of trying to dishonestly gain glory for themselves without earning it. Kalu took the kick because he passionately wanted to make his team win, and he needed to ensure that he took it himself instead of just leaving this responsibility to others. The error he made in his judgement was that the other younger players were probably in a better position to take penalties since he has obviously lost a bit of his speed now, even though his amazing I.Q. still shows whenever he touches the ball.
I can also say something, psychologically, about another motivation that drives Kalu. Apart from seeking glory for his team, he also passionately seeks glory for himself. Many people think this is a wrong thing to do, but I believe this is the greatest strength that great Kalu has.
Many modernist moralists, philosophers, preachers and writers would like us to believe that a man who seeks glory for himself is immoral; that only those who sacrifice their own self interests should be praised and honoured in society. This is not only a wrong philosophy, it is also the one responsible for paralysing the dreams of many young people who could have become great had they not listened to such nonsense.
The truth is that every great legend actively and consciously sought to achieve great glory for himself or herself. One only needs to examine the minds of the most famous legends we have had in our time, like the great Muhammad Ali. Before Ali became known as “the greatest boxer of all time” he did not hide the fact that he wanted to become “the greatest boxer of all time”! Ali always used to say “I want everyone, everywhere to know that I am the greatest boxer of all time.” And he did indeed become the greatest. There is no boxer who has had more books written about him or films made of him than the great Muhammad Ali.
Someone does not have to be as boastful as Ali, but he can still have great dreams and goals for his own glory. Kalusha Bwalya is the most humble personality in Zambia, but he still has great dreams of glory for himself; like Ali. He knows that he was supposed to have been recognised a long time ago as arguably the greatest player or “free kicker” Africa has ever had, but circumstances beyond his control probably robbed him of this glorious title. But he is not one to be defeated – he has continued his fight for honour, and sometimes this means that he will have to face some tough moments like the one he now faces after missing that penalty.
This will not slow him down – it will simply give him more determination to continue his pursuit of such great glory until he achieves it, no matter how old he shall be.
Kalu wants to achieve the Zambian record of being the only coach to take the Zambian team to the world cup. He also wants to become the only player-coach at the world cup to play for his team and to score. And finally, he wants to take a page in the Guinness book of world records for becoming the oldest player to have scored at the world cup, thus dethroning Roger Miller. Besides this, he will probably be the only top official of a national soccer body administration to have played in the world cup (as FAZ Vice President), and he will also be the only official of FIFA to have scored or played in a world cup match (as a member of the technical committee of FIFA). This will put Kalu’s name at the level where even the great Pele could be caused to feel a bit of envy. But this is the kind of dream that all the greatest achievers of the world have had. They always sought their own glory above everything else, and everything else only followed naturally.
In other words, as Kalu achieves all these records, his nation will also gain something big. By achieving his own pride he shall grant all of us a sense of pride that could transform our lives in incalculable ways. We shall boast of being part of his national family wherever we go so that even when people look down on our economy, they will at least recognise that we have a great spirit that can achieve great goals even on the highest level, given the right opportunities (perhaps this could even make it easier for Zambians to be given good jobs abroad!)
This is why Kalu should not listen to those critics who are now telling him that it is time to quit playing football. If he quits he will become just like them – armchair critics who never do anything important for themselves except to wait for someone to discourage it. He will lose the chance of achieving great records for himself that could have even resulted in giving the rest of the nation the pride that comes from identifying with such a great hero.
Neither should he listen to those altruists who think that a man should never seek his glory but only the glory of others or only the glory of his nation. When he starts believing such hypocritical claptrap, he will lose the energy and creativity that always accompanied those who honestly sought their own personal glory even in difficult circumstances like Ali, Maradona, Michael Jordan, Bobby Fisher, and so many others. In fact, Kalu should probably teach this alternative philosophy and psychology (of putting one’s personal glory first) to his other national team players so that those “lads” could achieve so much more for themselves and thus end up achieving the same for the nation. He should motivate the goal scorers to think first of their own personal gain and glory, including the contracts they could get in rich European clubs, so that as they seek to achieve these personal goals, they will also end up scoring more goals for the nation!
When Kalu introduces this sort of individualism into the team, it does not mean that the players will lose the ability to play as a team. Real Madrid has some of the most individualistic players, each of whom seeks great glory unto himself, and yet they still manage to win many games as a team. The Brazilian national team is the best example of a team that is very individualistic, with each player thinking of the praise, honour and adoration he will receive back home in soccer crazy Brazil if he plays very well, which is why most Brazilian players do not even change their nationality when they go to play in Europe. At the beginning of the last world cup, the Brazilian legend Ronaldo promised that he would be the top scorer at the world cup and he did indeed become the top scorer – as an individual – and this ended up helping the team win the world cup.
Desire for personal glory is a very good and healthy thing and it is not something to be despised or be ashamed of. This powerful desire is always evident in the great Kalu and it supplies him with a level of energy, risk-taking propensity and determination that has never been common in the culture of Zambia and Africa in general. If all of us could shamelessly and passionately apply this desire for personal glory in every area of our lives and careers, by simply imitating the spirit of the Great Kalu, we could end up building a great culture of achievement and success such as has become the mark of all the great individualist nations of the world.
And on this long road to personal glory, someone might stumble at times and experience a setback….
Like missing a critical penalty. But when such great dreamers refuse to be discouraged, their small setbacks become destined to remain only small footnotes in their great biographies. This is because they tend to fight on and on and on, until their big dreams come true.
Or as we say in Zambian movie-ology, the “starring” never dies – he only faints!