Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor—
UNDER the shadow of a great Dutchman, and on the big stage of the UEFA Champions League, Norman Mapeza had a Camp Nou front-row seat as he watched a coaching revolution that eventually gave the world the beauty of tiki-taka, an all-conquering Barcelona and a genius called Pep Guardiola. Ten years later, Mapeza plunged into the trenches of coaching, as part of a backroom staff of a revolutionary local coach trained in Germany, the home of his old Dream Team gaffer, in a dynamic combination that would help CAPS United lay the foundation for their back-to-back league championship success stories in 2004 and 2005.
The FC Platinum coach, who turned 45 on April 12 this year, is part of a golden generation of domestic coaches – aged between 41 and 52 who have won 13 of the last 17 domestic league championships – with five of them still trapped in their forties.
Methembe Ndlovu, at 41, is the youngest while the other members are Lloyd Chitembwe (48), Callisto Pasuwa (47), Charles Mhlauri (48), Moses Chunga, who turned 52 last week, while two-time league championship winner Rahman Gumbo turns 54 in three weeks’ time. Lloyd Mutasa (50) and Tonderai Ndiraya (38) are chasing their maiden championship titles as coaches.
On a day when Chitembwe is set to pit his skills against Dutch coach Elroy Akbay of Highlanders at the National Sports Stadium tonight, it is the enduring influence of a legendary Dutchman – the late Johan Cruyff – which could prove decisive in shaping the destiny of this season’s domestic league championship race and, possibly, finally exorcise a curse that has raged for more than half-a-century.
Of course, there are global concerns about Dutch football right now and the failure of some of that country’s best coaches in recent months including Frank de Boer being sacked by Inter Milan after just 85 days last year and by Crystal Palace after just four games with Ronald Koeman following him this week after his axing by Everton hasn’t helped matters.
On the domestic front, Akbay is in the twilight phase of a two-year adventure at Highlanders that will end without any silverware to show for this first dance with football outside his Dutch homeland.
But it’s not all doom and gloom for the football philosophy built on short passes and great movement, with the ball being worked through various channels where the retention of possession is paramount and the rock on which everything is built, which Mapeza fell in love with during an encounter with the great Dutchman back in the days when he was still a player for Turkish giants Galatasaray.
After all, Guardiola – probably the best of the lot who have borrowed from Cryuff’s template – is flourishing at Manchester City and his free-flowing attacking football has attracted many neutrals and ignited hopes he could write success stories in England and in Europe with the Citizens.
Mapeza is another believer who was charmed during two UEFA Champions League group matches which Galatasaray played against a Barca side under the tutelage of Cruyff over a two-week period in September 1994, with the philosophy leaving a lasting impression on the Zimbabwean who played 180 minutes of both games in Barcelona and in Istanbul in Turkey.
Guardiola and Koeman were among his opponents in that Barca side, which featured the likes of Brazilian legend Romario and Bulgarian great Hristo Stoichkov, and Mapeza and Pep played the entire 90 minutes – on opposite ends – in the first match at the Camp Nou on September 14, 1994, which Barca won 2-1.
The Manchester City manager, who turned Barca into the best team in the world based on this philosophy, also featured in the second leg in Istanbul two weeks later which ended in a landmark 2-1 victory for Mapeza’s men with Romario scoring the only goal for the Catalan giants.
‘‘He (Cruyff) was unique, totally unique,” Guardiola told British newspaper The Guardian. “Without him I wouldn’t be here. I know for sure this is why I am, right now, the manager of Manchester City and before that Bayern Munich and Barcelona.
“Before he came we didn’t have a cathedral of football, this beautiful church, at Barcelona. We needed something new. And now it is something that has lasted. It was built by one man, by Johan Cruff, stone by stone. That’s why he was special.
“I would not be able to do what he did. You hear all these people saying: ‘Oh Pep, what a good manager he is.’ Forget about it. Cruyff was the best, by far. Creating something new is the difficult part. To make it and build it and get everyone to follow? Amazing.’’
For Mapeza, who some believe is the best of a crop of very good young domestic coaches who have dominated the domestic landscape since Mlhauri started this revolution in 2004 – despite arguments from others who argue that Callisto Pasuwa is better – a window for immortality, into an elite club that only has the name of the late Father Antony Davies of St Paul’s Musami as its member, has opened.
Five victories for his FC Platinum, beginning with a tough examination at the hands of a resilient Harare City at Rufaro tomorrow where the Sunshine Boys will suddenly find themselves with more supporters than they have ever imagined, with the Dynamos fans set to sing in their corner, is all he needs for a ticket to the Promised Land irrespective of what happens elsewhere.
A loss might be a huge setback but, with a lot of twists and turns expected in the final chapter, it might not be the end of his dreams to win a second league championship medal as coach, nine years after he did so with modest Harare side Monomotapa.
The fact that it’s something that hasn’t be done in more than half-a-century, a club from outside Harare and Bulawayo being crowned champions of this country since 1966, has given this quest by Mapeza and Ndiraya to end that curse such a very special tag.
It’s sad only one of this golden generation of local coaches has to win because, given where all the four contenders have come from this season, one gets a feeling they have done enough to deserve honours.
But that is the other side of this game which Cryuff and his tiki-taka made beautiful, inspiring a generation of coaches including Mapeza, but – as Koeman, De Boer and to some extent Akbay have found out – is brutal to those who don’t deliver silverware.