DANCING WITH A LEGEND

Grace Chingoma Senior Sports Reporter
BRAZILIAN legend Rivaldo’s landmark visit to Harare this week brought back a flood of memories for former Zimbabwe international Kennedy Nagoli of the time when his talents took him to play in the land of the Samba Boys. A member of Reinhard Fabisch’s Dream Team, Nagoli didn’t get the opportunity to meet Rivaldo during his time in Harare because of commitments elsewhere.

But, the arrival of the former Barcelona superstar reminded Nagoli of a time when he played in the same Brazilian top-flight league with a teenage Rivaldo and rubbed shoulders with some of the most talented players to play the game. Nagoli, born and bred in Kwekwe, was so good back in his heydays that Brazilian legend Pele —widely regarded as the finest footballer of all-time — recommended that he be signed by his old club Santos. It’s very rare for African footballers to make the grade in the Brazilian top-flight league where there is an abundance of talent, with the South American country providing the world with some of its greatest football stars.

But Nagoli made it, not for an obscure side, but for Pele’s Santos, the former World Club Champions who, in later years, also gave the world its most expensive player, Neymar. Pele has the record number of appearances for Santos with 1 106 first-team games between 1956 and 1974, while the club is the joint most successful Brazilian team in the Copa Libertadores, the equivalence of the UEFA and CAF Champions League. They are the only Brazilian club from outside Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre to win an international tournament.

Robinho and Dunga are former Santos stars. Nagoli remembers the days when he played for Santos when Rivaldo was playing for Palmeiras. He rubbed shoulders in that Brazilian top-flight league with a host of other retired greats such as Julio Cesar, Romario, Edmundo, Carlos Roberto and Ze Roberto. The 44-year-old Nagoli was a highly-talented box-to-box player, the typical number 10, who could have played for many top teams in world football today had he emerged on the scene in this era. He played in the old Europa Cup when he moved to Greece and won a medal in the Brazilian Cup with Santos. Nagoli arrived at Santos, coming from South African side Jomo Cosmos.

“Jomo Sono spotted me during a Zimbabwe Under-20 soccer match in Swaziland. That time I was playing for ZiscoSteel, and the previous year had briefly played for Darryn T on loan following the relegation of ZiscoSteel,’’ Nagoli said.

‘‘I was bought by Cosmos in 1992. And that time Pele came to South Africa to promote something which had to do with Master Card. He told Sono that ‘I am taking these boys with me, referring to me and Arthur Zwane.’ I had played two seasons at Cosmos and left for Brazil. Sono played together with Pele in the US at New York Cosmos, before he returned home to establish his team Jomo Cosmos.” The former Manunure High athlete still remembers that when he started playing at Santos, Robson de Souza, commonly known as Robinho, was only 10 and was in the club’s junior teams. Pele started to play at Santos while he was 16, he is very close with the club and in one of my pictures I was taken with Pele and my club directors, and he had come to officially open our stadium extension at Santos. So you can imagine arriving at a club with a recommendation from such a great person. I easily fitted into the Santos team and was never on the bench. I was always in the first 11. I was a skilful player, no one would take the ball from my legs,” he said. And the former attacking midfielder says he owes a lot to Sono. I respect him as a father. He is a football man through-and-through. And you can clearly see that here in Zimbabwe, some of the finest footballers to make successful moves abroad (Benjani Mwaruwari and myself), it was through him and his football links. He is one person, whom I know I can confidently phone to recommend a player. He knows I was a great player, so can easily identify one,” he said. Nagoli fondly remembers that back then the Brazillian league was awash with talent.

“Edmundo was playing at Corinthians, Romario was at Flamengo, Rivaldo was at Palmeiras together with Flavio Conceicao, Cafu and Luizao. Most of the people in Brazil thought I was a South African,” he said. The Warriors midfielder says they would train at least three times a day.

“Those Brazilians are very fit, a fit Brazilian can do whatever he wants with the ball. I learnt a lot in my career. Nagoli’s coaching career is yet to really take off,” he said. He was once assistant coach to his best friend Lloyd Chitembwe at CAPS United in 2009 and still assists his long-time friend when the Green Machine are playing high-profile games.

“What frustrates me the most is I don’t want to be used because I know what I am worth,” he says. Nagoli has a house in Belvedere, Harare, and several properties in Kwekwe, where he single-handedly takes care of his whole family.

“I am now running an academy, Sportive Academy and we train at Long Cheng. We are barely a year-old but it is coming up. We start recruiting from five-year-olds and there is a lot that needs to be done. Resources permitting, I would want to penetrate the market and use my links to market the players because sometimes it is about the links, you can have a good player at an academy but if you can’t market well when he is ripe, all that might be in vain,” said Nagoli. More than two decades might have passed since his dance with Rivaldo but, for Nagoli, memories of his battles with a man who would later be named the best player in the world remain very fresh.

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