|Benjani, Zimbabwe's football hero|
|Friday, 25 May 2012 20:06|
THE old millennium was staggering towards its end, prophets of doom were lining up to tell us that the world, too, was coming to an end and there was a lot of uncertainty around the globe.
The more some things were changing, the more others were remaining the same.
The Zimbabwe Warriors were still to qualify for the Nations Cup finals and almost two decades of hunting in the jungles of African football had yielded nothing for the team.
Dynamos had blazed a trail by reaching the final of the Champions League in ’98 but the final hurdle turned into a barrier too high and the Glamour Boys wilted, under a combination of pressure and controversy in Abidjan, and blew their golden chance.
Amid all this, one thing was very clear.
Zimbabwe football was crying out for a new hero after a decade in which the Flying Elephant had dominated the show but, incredibly, even at the peak of his powers with the Dream Team, he had also found the final hurdle a barrier too high to scale.
There were some beautiful days, with Reinhard Fabisch playing the conductor of the orchestra, and we saw the Egyptians, the Cameroonians and, how could I forget that, Bafana Bafana, being humbled by a Dream Team that took no prisoners at home.
There were some ugly days, like that night in Cairo, when 120 000 screaming Egyptians turned the National Sports Stadium into a cathedral of rage against our Warriors and Bruce Grobbelaar was struck by a missile as the Pharaohs and their fans employed every dirty trick in the book.
Luckily, it was a Fifa World Cup qualifier, where the playing field is level, and not the Caf Nations Cup qualifiers, where home teams can get away with murder, and the folks in Zurich decided our boys had been treated badly and nullified the 2-1 victory for the Pharaohs.
There were some tense days, like that day in the French city of Lyon, chosen by Fifa to host the replayed match against the Egyptians, when the Warriors put up a defensive show that was as good as it can get, and luck smiled on them on crucial occasions, to come out of a bruising contest with a goalless draw and a place in the final ’94 World Cup qualifying round.
There were some heartbreaking days, like that afternoon at the National Sports Stadium when all we needed was a win to book our place at the ’94 Nations Cup finals and we scored first, hit the post, and then conceded a late equaliser headed in by Kalusha Bwalya — his first headed goal for Zambia.
There were some sad days, like that day in Yaounde when only 90 minutes stood between us and a place at the ’94 World Cup finals, and somehow the match officials conspired to frustrate every move that we made and Fabisch lost his cool and waved US dollar notes in their direction, to suggest they had been bribed.
We lost that game 3-1, Fabisch was handed a one-year ban by Caf and the Dream Team era was over.
But, while the Cameroonians had masked their shortcomings with biased officiating at home, they were exposed at the World Cup and conceded half-a-dozen goals against the Russians. For all the drama that had happened in the wild ‘90s, sparked by the emergence on the stage of King Peter at the beginning of the decade and the arrival of Fabisch to create his Dream Team, the sad reality was that we had gone nowhere — not even to the Nations Cup, not even at the World Cup.
Sometimes it was hard to understand how this had happened, to understand why this had happened, WHY ALWAYS US — the referees who would mess it up for us as was the case in Yaounde, the post that would deny us at home and Kalusha, somehow, suddenly perfecting the art of heading against us.
By the time the ‘90s staggered to a close, bringing the curtain down on the old millennium, Zimbabwean football looked weary, staggering on a pair of tired legs, carrying a battered body and a shattered soul and, what was very clear, was that the game was looking for something fresh.
Something exciting, the explosion of a new talent that could bring hope, the arrival of a player who would do what King Peter had done and, possibly, carry us past the final hurdle this time around, something fresh, something promising.
Surely, we had suffered enough, the football gods were crazy we knew that, but WHY ALWAYS US?
Benjani Arrives, Time For The Undertaker
On November 1, 1999, there were about 15 000 Zimbabwean fans, who appeared lost in the vast spaces of the National Sports Stadium but, to their credit, created a festive atmosphere as they rallied behind the Young Warriors in a tough battle against the Flying Eagles of Nigeria. It was a qualifier for the 2000 Sydney Olympics and the Zimbabwe Under-23 team, who represented the future of the game as it crossed into the new millennium, were up against the best young players from a Nigerian nation that had won gold at the last Olympics in the United States.
Nwankwo Kanu and his Golden Generation had set the benchmark for the Nigerians in the Atlanta sunshine, reveling under pressure to beat both Brazil and Argentina and shock the world by becoming the first African country to win Olympic gold in the football tournament.
Now, three years later, the onus fell on a new group of Flying Eagles, led by Pius Ikedia, a tricky winger who, on his day, was virtually unplayable and, when they landed in Harare, the spring in their step sent a message that they were here for a routine victory.
Grobbelaar, a pillar of the Dream Team, was there at the National Sports Stadium that afternoon, to watch the future generation of stars who would possibly leap the final hurdle that The Jungleman’s generation had found to be too steep a barrier to scale.
Thulani “Biya” Ncube, a Bosso defender who played with class, was the Young Warriors’ skipper and it was a strong team that featured the likes of Desmond Maringwa, a stunning natural talent whose career would sadly be haunted by injury, a sad thing given he had everything one needed to play football in Europe.
Blessing “Yogo Yogo” Makunike was the creative hub of this team, playing his football with a swagger and an intelligent brain that helped him see openings where others saw barriers, and so much was expected of him in his journey in the football jungles.
But, sadly, Makunike would not live to see it all and one horrible night, on March 13, 2004, while returning home from a league match in the City of Kings, Yogo Yogo and four others, including his two teammates, were killed in a car crash.
Joel Luphahla was the speed merchant of the team, operating on the flanks where the wide spaces gave him room to use his pace for his advantage, and while he was not well-known then, it was only a matter of time, and five years later at the 2004 Nations Cup finals, he was the standout player for the Warriors.
Nqobizita Ncube was getting rave reviews everywhere and many were saying that he was billed to do even better than Black Aces legends, Wilfred and William Mugeyi, and Rabson Muchichwa, who had also used to Aces springboard, to get a career in South Africa.
Two years earlier Walter Tshuma had even been voted as the best player plying his trade on the domestic Premiership, albeit in very controversial circumstances, since Tauya Murewa and Edelbert Dinha were the standout performers and when Dinha was disqualified, the CAPS United camp among the journalists went wild and sabotaged the process.
Master Masiku and Richard Choruma were also a promising lot.
But, on that November afternoon at the National Sports Stadium, it wasn’t Yogo Yogo, it wasn’t Luphahla, it wasn’t Nqobizita, it wasn’t Walter and it wasn’t Master or Richard who received the standing ovation after an individual performance that caught the eye.
Rather, it was Benjani Mwaruwari, then a skinny boy who just could not stop running, who kept pressing the Nigerian defence by running at them, who seemed to have incredible energy, who seemed unstoppable whenever he had the ball, who seemed to pick the right spots to hunt all the time.
We had been down 0-1 at half-time but Benjani changed it all around in the second half.
Two headed goals turned the game on its head and the cocky Nigerians, representing the best possible XI players from 120 million people or thereabout, were beaten.
Suddenly, everyone was talking about Benjani, including the Nigerians, and when the international news agencies did their African round-up of the Olympic qualifiers, the Zimbabwean was featured prominently, dominating all the coverage.
Benjani, The Undertaker, had arrived with a bang.
The Angola Assignment That Made Benjani
Three months after destroying the Nigerians in Harare, Benjani arrived at the National Sports Stadium on February 13, 2000, not as an unknown quantity but now carrying the hopes of the nation, playing the spearhead role for the Young Warriors, for their Olympic qualifier against Angola.
Just like the Nigerians, this Angolan national youth team was very strong and, five years down the line, they would provide the muscle of the Negras Palancas team that would edge the Super Eagles for a place at the 2006 World Cup finals.
Lama, Jamba, Flavio and the impressive Gilberto would all develop one day to inspire their senior national team to a place at the World Cup finals in the finest hour of Angolan football.
But, on that February afternoon in 2010 at the giant stadium, it was all about Benjani.
He fired the Young Warriors into the lead in the third minute and doubled the score in the 71st minute and, with two minutes remaining in regulation, they led 2-1 and looked good value for a victory against the plucky Angolans who fought for every ball.
Then Silas equalised with barely a minute remaining and the National Sports Stadium was plunged into silence as the Olympic dream started to fade away, just the way the Nations Cup dream had faded seven years earlier when Kalusha slammed home that header.
Cometh the challenge, cometh the main man!
With full time on the clock, the Young Warriors launched one final attack, and Benjani fired home a dramatic winner and, as he wheeled away in a blaze of glory, it was like reliving that day when Agent Sawu scored a late and dramatic winner, on the same ground, for the Dream Team, against Cameroon.
A hat-trick against the Angolans, two goals against the Nigerians, you really felt that Zimbabwe football had a new hero and Benjani was the main man.
The Young Warriors did not make it to the Sydney Olympics, nose-diving to a 0-4 defeat at the hands of the Flying Eagles of Nigeria in their final qualifier, in what coach Clemens Westerhof described as an insult to everything professional about football.
But it didn’t stop Benjani’s profile from growing and at the end of the 2001 season, while playing for Jomo Cosmos in South Africa, he was named Player of the Year and Players’ Player of the Year.
The path had been cleared for him to go to Europe and, as they say, the rest is history.
The Benjani That I Know
Two years after being crowned the best player plying his trade in South Africa, Benjani was part of the generation that helped the Warriors finally break the curse, if you are one of those who believe in Ben Kouffie, as we qualified for our first Nations Cup finals in 2003.
He played in the qualifiers but, sadly, missed the finals in Tunisia because of injury.
Two years later, he finally made his Nations Cup bow in Egypt and our close friendship started one night in Cairo, in January 2006, when I was one of the three Zimbabweans who welcomed him on arrival at the international airport aboard a private jet.
He had been transferred from AJ Auxerre to Portsmouth, forcing the English club to break the bank and pay their biggest transfer fee for a player in a deal worth more than 4 million pounds, and had played a couple of games for his new employers when Nations Cup duty called.
Portsmouth delayed his departure, as late as possible, which meant he missed the training camp in France and the training game in Morocco, and, given that he was their most prized asset, they hired a private jet to fly Benjie and his manager Ralph Nkomo to Cairo.
When the sleek private jet landed that night, just after midnight, and its two passengers alighted from the flying machine, my mind drifted back to the days when I first saw Benjie, playing for Lulu Rovers, at Pfupajena in a Division One match.
Then, he could barely afford to buy a decent pair of boots to play with and, just like the other Lulu Rovers’ players, it was clear that life was tough for them. He was beginning to make a name for himself in Chegutu then, but then this is a very small town, and when the game ended, all the players made the journey to their homes on foot.
None of them owned a car and most of them were one-room lodgers either in the P or C sections of the high-density areas of the town.
Incredibly, now Benjani was being flown to a national assignment, by an English Premiership side, in a private jet and the world of the boy that I had watched at Pfupajena, making the journey home on foot, had changed dramatically.
God, indeed, is Great!
Benjani’s critics say he didn’t make a huge contribution, to the Warriors, as he did for the clubs that he played for and that’s a valid point because, when you are a high-profile player like Benjie, you need to deliver consistently when you come back home.
Peter Ndlovu, whatever people might say, used to do it consistently for his country, even on the occasions when he arrived here just hours before the game, and set a benchmark for others.
Benjani, unfortunately for him, found himself under pressure to walk the path that King Peter walked, when it came to the national team, and that was always going to be a huge challenge.
We can’t fault Benjani for trying and he always gave it his best shot for his country although it never seemed to work out because there was a mountain of expectation placed on his shoulders all the time.
But Benjani is a Zimbabwean football hero because he provided a story, a beautiful one, for the future generation of our footballers that, if they keep the right focus, they can rise from Pfupajena to play at Old Trafford and score against Manchester United.
That they can rise from poverty, in Magwegwe, to make millions, while playing football, and move around the world in private Lear jets. That one doesn’t necessarily need to have the best natural talent because, if you ask me, there were a number of better naturally talented footballers in this country than Benjani who never scaled such heights, to make it to the very top.
Today, Benjani will say farewell to the fans and has brought a number of his friends, whom he met on his international tour of duty, to celebrate the grand occasion.
I will be there at the giant stadium because I feel he represents the successful side of Zimbabwean football, which is rarely written about in an era where journalism thrives on negativity, and he needs to be saluted because he made the most of his opportunity.
It’s not easy to be traded for plus four million pounds, which in this age of crazy transfers translates to about 12 million pounds, not easy to play for a club like Manchester City, not easy to score in a ground like Old Trafford while playing for their hated neighbours and not easy to remain a simple and humble guy.
That’s Benjie for me, the guy who never let fame creep into his head, the guy who realised that his playing days would not go on forever and, like a gold mine, there was a lifespan to all this and it was wise to invest while the sun was still shining, the guy who, as he says goodbye today, still wants to invest in a system that will produce future football stars for us.
How many times have you heard about football stars who suddenly become big-headed individuals, who won’t even take a call from the journalists in their home nations, once they make it into Europe?
Not Benjie, and my fellow journalists can confirm that, because you called him, he answered, you chatted and you had your story — so simple, so nice, so natural.
Goodbye Benjani, The Undertaker
So, this is it, that moment when we have to say goodbye and to thank you for the memories.
I don’t know where to start, that day in Chegutu at Pfupajena when you were a nobody or that day at Cairo International Airport when we clicked and became good friends?
We have gone through it all, haven’t we?
The joy that came with our 2-1 victory over a World Cup-bound Ghana in Ismailia in our final game at the 2006 Nations Cup finals where we came within one goal, which Luphahla actually scored only for it to be disallowed in controversial circumstances, of making the quarter-finals.
You scored one of those two goals against the Ghanaians. Or the pain that came with that incredible miss, when we were 0-1 down, against Senegal at the same Nations Cup finals in Port Said, when you found yourself with an open goal but then somehow screwed your shot over the bar? There is a lot to say, few acres of space to cover it all.
But go well my brother, you have done your part and with this testimonial, showed this country how things should be done, how to bow out with grace, how to end it all in style.
I’m pretty sure the Benjani Foundation will produce a star better than you and, should that happen, you would have done your part for our game — both as a player and as an investor.
Cheers mate, you have done your part, don’t worry about those who believe you weren’t good enough because I’ve yet to see average African players who play for a club like Manchester City.
God bless you Benjani Mwaruwari!
Come on Benjaniiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!
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