ONE man stood up as the Zambian national anthem played as if he were part of the team standing erect on the pitch. Others excitedly settled down in their seats like small children following an instruction from their teacher. The match was about to begin. Zambia was taking on the Indomitable Lions.
With the sound of the vuvuzela blaring through the huge speakers, Club Vegas in Lusaka's Chilenje area felt like an overflow of Tundavala Stadium in Lubango, Angola.
And for the next 90 minutes, we all oohed and aahed before the many flat screens mounted on the walls of the drinking joint. And the nervousness that gripped our spirits dragged us to the edge of the seats.
In a fleeting moment of fantasy, our hearts raced with the ball as we all rooted our boys forward. We wowed at the beautiful runs and turns and cussed when a player from the opponent's side put in his foot to stop our player. Some made endless comments on our players' style - what should have been done, and how. There were even those who sounded like they could score at every opportunity given to wear the Chipolopolo shirt.
A few stringed passes between legs here and there, and…
"Weelleeeeeeeeeeee!" exploded the crowd when Jacob Mulenga scored the first goal eight minutes into the game. That explosion seemed to trigger several smaller explosions in every home and hall across the city in a simultaneous way. The beer flowed.
A middle-aged gentleman sitting next to me - a total stranger - extended a hand and gave me a firm handshake. All in the spirit of the game. Another man, on my other side - also a total stranger - asked me the all-important question that day: "Can we beat Cameroon?" I mumbled something I cannot remember.
After Cameroon equalised - through that flippant kick from a winger that sent our goalie into a clumsy fluff - my new friend rose from his seat in despair and left. He never returned.
At the close of the match, a limping Cameroon side had beaten us 3-2. And we were back to the mathematics table and the "if" talk. It has almost always come to this. The following day everyone discussed what should and shouldn't have been done to win the game. Those who were optimistic about advancing in the tournament expressed their optimism with caution.
For the best part of the month-long soccer showpiece, even some of the most salient issues on the political field had been shoved aside. People now debated and analysed football. Everyone had become an ardent soccer fan of sorts. Even those less spirited about football had a word or two to say about the game that has united us for decades.
Thursday, January 21
An even bigger crowd had gathered before the flat screens. It was Gabon this time. Our hopes swinging like a pendulum. Anything less than a win would dash our hopes of going to the next round. Two-one at the stroke of 90 minutes and we started counting down the added four minutes of extra time. Two minutes to the final whistle and our hearts swelled with anxiety as we feared the unthinkable. We had seen many late goals since the beginning of the tournament.
"Let's just pray for Mweene now," declared one young man, a bottle of Castle in one hand. A few others simply walked away, not wanting to see that final defining moment. Every face registered anxiety. And every kick towards our goal was like a kick below the belt. One man was clasping his hands behind his head, cringing as if the very grey sky that hung above our heads were about to fall.
And when the referee blew the final whistle, it was like a breath of life to a suffocating soul. And the evening turned carnival as a ragtag procession of honking cars, vuvuzela-blowing young men and a few frenzied women, screaming in high-pitched tones, broke the night silence. At some point the noise almost seemed hysterical. We had not come this far in 14 years.
Monday January 25 and our boys were facing the Nigerians before a capacity pub.
After a grueling two hours of goal-less football, the match went into penalties.
Players from either side could be seen praying as if the Omnipotent One were on their side. It was now their God against ours.
And the fans prayed for our players, while, in the same breath, cursing the players from the opponent's side.
"This one is going to miss. Lord help us we deserve to win," one woman was shouting when the Nigerian goalie came to kick that final and decisive ball.
In the end, the Nigerian God'o carried the night'o, thanks to the Thomas Nyirenda curse at exactly midnight. And we all trooped back to our homes, quietly.
But why does football captivate our hearts so much? Why do we weep and shout like small children? Why do we fall in love with the Game?
British journalist and novelist John Lanchester, writing in an article Ballet With the Ball: A Love Story, romanticised soccer thus:
"At some deep level the reason soccer snags us is that good soccer is beautiful, and it's difficult, and the two are related. A team kicking the ball to each other, passing into empty space that is suddenly filled by a player who wasn't there two seconds ago and who is running at full pelt and who without looking or breaking stride knocks the ball back to a third player who he surely can't have seen, who, also at full pelt and without breaking stride, then passes the ball, at say 60 miles an hour, to land on the head of a fourth player who has run 75 yards to get there and who, again all in stride, jumps and heads the ball with, once you realise how hard this is, unbelievable power and accuracy toward a corner of the goal just exactly where the goalkeeper, executing some complex physics entirely without conscious thought and through muscle-memory, has expected it to be, so that all this grace and speed and muscle and athleticism and attention to detail and power and precision will never appear on a score sheet and will be forgotten by everybody a day later - this is the strange fragility, the evanescence of soccer. It's hard to describe and it is even harder to do, but it does have a deep beauty, a beauty hard to talk about and that everyone watching a game discovers for themselves, a secret thing, and this is the reason why soccer, which has so much ugliness around it and attached to it, still sinks so deeply into us: Because it is, it can be, so beautiful."
And very few people have expressed such passion about the beautiful game in Zambia than radio commentator Dennis Liwewe.
In 1961, a young Dennis stepped off a train on the small Copperbelt town of Kitwe with only a suitcase, a teaching certificate, and a booming voice to his name.
He never used his teaching certificate, though, choosing instead to work as a journalist for one of the mining newspapers called Nchanga Weekly.
When the British left the country after independence, they left a vacancy in the commentary box and somebody from the radio station approached Liwewe asking him to fill the gap. He resisted.
"I said hey guys I never played football at school. I know nothing...I don't know the difference between a penalty and an indirect free kick because when I was at school, my mother told me 'never you play football because they will break your leg. And at that time I was very thin. And if there's been anybody who has ever listened to his mother, it has been me. Never played football."
Liwewe recalls how he would carry a tape recorder into the bush to record himself practicing commentaries. It worked.
Soon, his booming voice had become synonymous with football and was to take him to 42 counties. The boy who had never kicked a ball had transformed himself into a football guru with the status of a bald-headed prophet.
Even today, those commentaries are engraved at the back of his mind and will occasionally pick a line and recite it like an ancient poet with a deep sense of self-admiration that registers on his face. He is good and he knows it. He was once rated one of the top 10 football commentators in the world.
"That was done through practice, dedication, wish, will and desire to succeed," he says. It wasn't done by somebody who was half-drunk in the commentary box. No. For your own information, I've never tasted alcohol in my life nor smoked. Never."
Just as well, baby Dennis was born with only one kidney in a village on the shores of Lake Malawi in Nkhotakota.
In 1977, president Kaunda, an ardent soccer lover himself, honoured the Malawian-born self-made journalist for distinguished service.
The picture of Liwewe receiving the accolade from Dr Kaunda hangs on the wall of his living room, with the inscription "Memo to my grandchildren" in bold letters above it. Below it, Liwewe wrote: When you are brilliant, hard working and well-behaved, and contribute positively to the development and well-being of the country, no one will care where your grandparents came from".
Such is the passion with which he followed the Game that he confesses to weeping in the commentary box when Zambia lost.
On the other wall of his living room hangs a picture of himself with Godfrey Chitalu taken in the mid-70s.
Godfrey "Ucar" Chitalu. Mention that name to old Dennis and he becomes animated. "Oh he was... He was... My friend if he was playing in the world football today, he would have been with Chelsea or Manchester United.
"He was the greatest human being with a fighting spirit. A little bit naughty here and there... A little bit of a hothead, but he was not a ruffian," he says.
"Hothead because he wanted things done yesterday. I think he was four-five years ahead of time as far as football is concerned. He would pick up the ball in the centre circle and decide cheekily I'm going forward. And he was running, a double one, two. He's going. And then I would shout: Godiffureeey I command you to oopeni fayaaaaaa!" At 74, that distinct voice that later became the trademark of radio football commentaries is still as strong as ever.
But Chitalu's hotheadedness usually got him into trouble on the pitch, so much so that it remains as an indelible blotch on his memorial. Those who played with him still remember his appalling behaviour on the field of play - arguments with referees, punching and head-butting opponents as well as hurling insults on them. He had become "the bad boy of Zambian football".
Jazzman Chikwakwa was one of Chitalu's best friends in his formative days on the Copperbelt where he played for Kitwe United.
Although he cannot come to the defence of his friend over his much publicised flagrant behaviour on the pitch, he is quick to find an excuse for it. He thinks it was the stardom that got to Chitalu's head that caused him to behave badly on the pitch. "You know when you're a star... He grew big-headed," says Chikwakwa, who is now permanent secretary for Luapula Province.
But even then, Chitalu's goal-scoring prowess still endeared him to fans.
"This was a player that you can't afford as a coach, as manager to put aside, regardless of his behaviour," says Chikwakwa. "Because when he is playing and you're a manager, then you're assured that definitely you'll get the results."
His record of 107 goals in 1972 seems to have been etched in stone. It remains unchanged 38 years later.
It was Liwewe who gave him the pet name "Ucar" after a brand of batteries made in Malawi. And his fans loved it, humming "Uuuuucaaar" whenever he touched the ball.
Up until the late eighties, that name echoed on every small open space where two blocks placed on either end of the field represented goal posts. And where barefooted boys chased and kicked a ball of plastics. "Uuuucaaar" became the code name for any wonderful run on the makeshift pitches.
Chitalu's image was also emblazoned on boxes of marches made by a local manufacturer. And in 1981, after he was bestowed with the Order of Distinguished Service Second Division by president Kenneth Kaunda, Liwewe produced an album in honour of the goal king. That LP, titled Godfrey Chitalu is said to have sold like hot cakes. The bad boy of Zambian football had become a football icon.
Match reports of the 70s reveal Ucar's nimble runs with the ball and his ability to score.
"The match appeared as if it would end in a draw when Chitalu dribbled past all the defenders, drew out substitute keeper Nkonjera and passed the ball to advancing Oliver Musonda who made it 4-3," reads one back page story in the Times of Zambia of June 12, 1972.
The story goes on to say: "Chitalu was on target when with a solo effort scored his second and fifth goal in the 87th minute."
That game was between Kabwe Warriors and Rokana United (later Nkana Red Devils).
By 1974, Chitalu had become such an enigma on the pitch, drawing huge crowds of cheering fans.
"Earlier, Chatalu had the crowd on its toes with one of his usual scintillating solo moves deep into the Dynamo territory," wrote one reporter writing about a game between Zambia and Dynamo of Minsk on December 2, 1974. However, not everyone was impressed with those selfish runs and the referees also caught him on the wrong side more often than not.
In one match in the early 70s, five of his goals were ruled offside.
But he still made his mark.
"Godfrey Chitalu was a centre-forward of yesterday, today and tomorrow," declares Liwewe, who is also a devout Anglican.
"The greatest footballer Zambia has ever produced," he says without hesitating.
You believe that? I interjected. "Oh yes. Definitely. Even Kalusha whom I consider number two admits that. I've spoken to him and he admits that ba Chitalu was something else."
Zambia had qualified to the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt that year.
A horde of fans had travelled to Egypt to cheer their team. Among those was Rupiah Banda. He was later to be appointed ambassador to Egypt by president Kaunda.
On March 2, Zambia, still considered an underdog on the continent, were facing Cote d'Ivoire. Zambia won 1-0. Then lost to hosts Egypt 3-1 on March 4. Two days later, we beat Uganda 1-0.
But the big one was yet to come.
One of the biggest matches Zambia played was against defending champions Congo Brazzaville in Alexandria. That game ended four-two in favour of Zambia.
"One of the greatest football matches I have ever watched," recalls Liwewe.
Zambia had come out of its shadow.
"And I remember somebody from one of the west African countries said: 'Johnny,' talking to his friend, 'la Zambie a assassine Congo Brazzaville'." "They couldn't believe it!"
On March 9, Zambia was up against a formidable Zaire - the team that had also qualified to the World Cup in West Germany.
Brighton Sinyangwe scored the golden goal 30 seconds before the final whistle to level the scoreline at 2-2, hence pushing for a replay two days later. Zambia lost 2-0. Zambia had stamped its foot on the world football map.
"That tournament was the beginning of the beginning of our football revolution," declares Liwewe with great nostalgia.
"From there we went to the Olympics in Seoul Korea," says Liwewe with a reminiscent expression on his face now drained of all its youth as he remembers the 1988 Olympics. Zambia was the only African team that reached the quarter finals.
"We beat Italy four goals to zero. I still have the tape here. We drew two-two with Iraq. At that time they're a force to reckon with in the Middle East with all their oil money. Then we beat Guatemala four-zero. Lost to the Germans... You know the Germans. But one thing is we got respectability in football," he says looping his words as though he was in the commentary box.
In April 1994, our golden boys were riding in the back of an open truck on Lusaka streets thronged with cheering crowds after coming second at the Africa Cup of Nations. Ironically, I was standing at the same spot where, a year earlier, I had watched with grim shock a cavalcade of 30 military pick-ups roll past, each bearing the remains of our fallen national heroes, including Chitalu's.
Prior to his death, the bad boy had gotten rid of his demons and as Chikwakwa puts it, "he died a gentleman".
So when was the best ever time for Zambia to lift the African trophy? I asked Chikwakwa.
"That time of Emmanuel Mwape in goal, then we had Dick Chama on four; Dickson Makwaza five, Richard Stevenson six. Then we had Emend Kapengwe seven from Roan. We had Peter M'hango in nine, Boniface Simutowe and then 'Chanama Icho' Godfrey Chitalu..." he says, sounding like a Liwewe-tutored commentator.
Then there were other players like Obby Kapita, one of four players that came from Mwinilunga district.
"There was a time when we had four international football players from one small district in North Western Province. Four," says Liwewe, holding up four fingers to emphasise his point.
Then there was Alex Chola. They called him the Computer because of his witty runs and turns. He was full of razzle-dazzle moves and it is said of him that he once dribbled a player from an opponent's side, leaving him with split shorts.
Then there was Gibby Zulu, Dick Chama, Willy Phiri and Fred Mwila.
Fred Mwila played alongside Chitalu.
"He was a very competitive player. He scored goals in the league and even at international level. Something that we are missing at the moment," he says about his team-mate, Chitalu.
Like many great players of his time and the later years, Mwila begun his football career at youth clubs, which were flourishing at the time on the Copperbelt.
"Fred Mwila was a genius wearing shirt number eight," says Liwewe.
So good was he with the ball, he attracted the attention of a club in Atlanta, US. He later played for Aston Villa.
But he always found it hard to find his place in the KK11, as the national team was known, whenever he returned home.
"Each time I came back home, I found it very hard to fit in those days because there were many good younger players. It was very competitive, but I played."
Mwila now spends most of his free time with old retired friends at the Chilanga Golf Club playing golf.
He has improved his game from 18 handicap to 15 handicap. "And that has improved my walking," says the 63-year-old.
A car crash a few years ago left him crippled for some time and he took to golf as a form of exercise to get back his legs. He still walks with a limp.
He, too, has fond memories about 1974 Africa Cup of Nations. He played a key role to help Zambia qualify to the tournament. He recalls one great player from Congo Brazzaville called Mpele.
"He was a dreaded player, but we managed to beat them," he says. Mwila, himself never played in the final and he retired from active football shortly after that.
But there is one concern that Liwewe, Chikwakwa and Mwila share about Zambian football - the lack of commitment and discipline among the new players.
"The commitment is totally different. You see, a lot of players don't come from the youth clubs. We used to come from the youth clubs and we had a lot of respect for football. Not many players went to bars and we respected our leaders and they showed us how to behave. Probably that's the main difference. Beer-drinking wasn't as rampant as it is now," says Mwila.
According to Mwila, Zambia needs to nurture players from a young age.
"This is where we're missing it, we're picking players when they are too old and have picked up bad habits and instead of concentrating, they're thinking about other things," he says.
Liwewe has a lot of praise for the old players and their commitment.
"They all played for the love of Mother Zambia. There was no such a thing in the dressing room as 'if you don't pay us our allowances, we're not playing'. I heard that when the team was out of the country some time. I cried. I said where is that spirit of Dickson Makwaza at shirt number five? Ackim Musenge was on the bench for three years, never complained," he mourns.
However, Liwewe is hopeful the old spirit is coming back, based on the team's performance in Angola.
"It is coming back, no doubt about it. That is what pleases me most. At the age of 74 I'm seeing the rebirth of the Zambian soccer spirit of yester-years. It is coming."
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