THIRTEEN years ago, I arrived here to bear witness, from a front-row seat, to the Warriors’ AFCON dance on the shores of the Nile and in the shadows of the pyramids. I had to come, no matter what, because beyond all this Egyptian merrymaking was something special for every true fan of the Warriors, which would unfold in this majestic Land of the Pharaohs.
The global spotlight was on the first multi-million dollar Zimbabwean international footballer Benjani, who had smashed the Portsmouth transfer record with his 4,1 million pound arrival at Pompey.
The boy from Magwegwe, who told his father he believed he could make it as a professional footballer and left the comforts of home as a teenager in a relentless chase of his dreams that saw him first land in Chegutu.
A Lulu Rovers official had seen him play, fell in love with how he harassed defenders with his deceptive pace and boundless energy, and asked him if he could consider coming to Chegutu where he would get a decent job and earn, in his own words, a decent salary.
Even though his old man wasn’t convinced his boy was making the right move, Benjani didn’t hesitate, powered by the instincts of teenage ambitions, he decided to go against his father’s wishes and counsel, and bolted for freedom. Despite initially struggling to settle in the small town, his football did the talking, the goals flowed, lots of them, at that Division One team. The pace gave defenders a nightmare, and soon the newspapers couldn’t ignore him anymore back in the day when reporters called him Benjamin Mwaluwali.
Air Zimbabwe Jets, after receiving a brutal treatment at the hands of this bullish teenage striker, offered him a ticket to the big city. Jomo Cosmos, whose owner Jomo Sono is always on the lookout for fresh and exciting talent, offered him a ticket to the bigger city of Johannesburg.
AJ Auxerre, then run by a wily old manager called Guy Roux, who would break the record of an unbroken spell of time spent at the same club after spending 53 years — nine as a player and 44 as a manager at the team — came and took him to France and then, BOOM, the English Premiership came calling.
What a journey! By the time I arrived in Cairo in 2006, Benjani had transformed himself from a man who would send his father cuttings of The Herald’s articles every time his name appeared in our columns, back in his days at Lulu Rovers, into one who was dominating headlines in the British media.
You have got to love life and all the surprises and presents it provides us, and the boy from Magwegwe, who struggled to raise money for the train journey from Bulawayo to Chegutu to pursue his dreams, was now worth a staggering £4,1 million pounds for his signature.
No more economy class train rides for him, like the one which brought him to Chegutu a few years earlier. The passage of time and the surprises of life having changed all that, left it to be stored by history, to be discussed on such blogs and by such bloggers, to be remembered by those of us who lived through it all.
Now, when I went to meet him at the Cairo International Airport for an interview in 2006 about his first AFCON finals show, he arrived in a private jet which his new English club had organised for him. Where there had been scores of passengers on that train ride from Bulawayo to Chegutu, in the cold of the night, there were only two passengers — Benjani and his manager Ralph Nkomo — on that private plane’s flight from Southampton to Cairo.
But, it wasn’t Benjani — still in the infancy of his Warriors journey — who represented the special reason why I had to be in Egypt at that tournament, no matter what, back in 2006.
There was a bigger story than Benjani’s journey from Magwegwe to Chegutu, from Harare to Johannesburg, from Auxerre to Portsmouth, no matter the romance of his adventure, no matter its closeness to fantasy than reality, no matter the transformation from economy class train rides to a seat on a private jet.
For, the Land of the Pharaohs, on the very shores of the Nile, in the shadows of the pyramids, not very far from the coast of the Mediterranean, was where the King’s story would virtually end after more than a decade of distinguished service to his fatherland.
FOR KING PETER, THIS WAS WHERE THE MUSIC DIED
For those of us who had lived his story, written a part of his tale, fallen in love with huge parts of his adventure, painted his picture to his adoring fans, captured the moments when he seemingly didn’t appear human, not being there to be witnesses would have been both an act of betrayal and certainly criminal.
It was Peter Ndlovu, his special story, a national story, a story filled so much with happiness, yet also tainted by a touch of sadness, the big story, the ultimate story, the great story, the final chapter. And, for him, because it was him, especially given it was him, specifically because it was him, his story, his stage, his swansong, I had to make sure that I had to be in Egypt that year.
Someone told me the other day that, hey, you are so biased towards Peter Ndlovu and my reply was emphatic as it was genuine — “ohhh, yes, I am and very proud of that.”
End of story. Why shouldn’t I?
Because I’m a journalist, of course I am, but before I became one, and after I stop from being one, I will still be the football fan I was long before I plunged into this job.
And, more importantly, I will remain what I have always been — a Zimbabwean who supports the Warriors, feels strongly for Manchester United and will remain eternally connected to my hometown club, Falcon Gold for the rest of my life until death ends that romance.
Now, if you genuinely call yourself a Warriors fan, then the special connection that exists between you and Peter Ndlovu, or that should exist between you and Peter Ndlovu — the romance, the attachment, the relationship, the love story and, of course, the respect, should be natural. Just like expecting every Jamaican to fall in love with Usain Bolt, because of everything the sprinter has done in his career to spread the good name of this island, which if it wasn’t for him, would possibly have been dominating the headlines around the world through its shockingly high murder rate.
The same people who don’t have any issues in accepting the narrative that Harry Kane is world class, in swallowing the British media chorus that he is greatness personified, when there is no evidence to back such outrageous, if not foolish claims, suddenly find a problem in my perceived bias towards Peter.
The same people who find it natural that the British media make no apologies to their portrayal of Kane, and even Dele Ali as supermen, when the reality tells us otherwise, suddenly have serious issues about why l sing such sweet melodies when it comes to Peter.
They conveniently forget that Peter has only me, and just a few others, as his home media, to celebrate his genius and no one else, and anyone who tells me that had the King emerged in this era, he would not have been good enough to play for any of the English Premiership Big Six clubs, will be trying to sell me a dummy and a lie. But these are the same people who showered me with all sorts of insults, which I took into my stride because it’s the nature of the job, simply because I refused to join their bandwagon to criticise Knowledge Musona for turning to TB Joshua for his healing sessions, which in their words, was not only a primitive act, but something that was an insult to the brand of the Warriors.
That Glen Hoddle made a career which propelled him to become the England manager at the ’98 World Cup finals in France on his beliefs in Eileen Drewery, a celebrated faith healer and spiritual guru doesn’t matter to them because, either he is white, or because he is English.
For King Peter, the Flying Elephant, the greatest Warrior of all-time, the trailblazing genius who made us fulfil our dreams, the one who smashed the walls that usually separate us in our moments of madness and weakness into tribal constituencies, the one who united an entire nation, AFCON 2006 in Egypt was his swansong major tournament.
He was 33, had been battered by 16 years of service to his motherland in international football, the pace had faded, the trickery was still there, but the football mind was no longer acting with the digital efficiency as was the case in his youth, and the time had come to say goodbye. Even the minutes he played in Egypt dwindled, when compared to the shift he performed in Tunisia, he played 67 minutes against Senegal, 11 minutes against Nigeria and 49 minutes against Ghana.
The game against the Super Eagles, in particular, told a huge story given he was brought in as a substitute and Benjani, who had started as the skipper, kept the armband even when Peter came in and, in that moment, it became clear we were witnessing a change in leadership. And, unlike Asamoah Gyan, who cried for the captaincy leading to the Ghanaian President to intervene a few months ago, Peter didn’t do that, his character was not made of such toxic stuff, he knew he would never be the skipper forever, and with grace and distinction, he accepted his fate.
Watching him do that, given all that he has done for his country — becoming the first skipper to lead his Warriors to the AFCON finals, producing memories that will last a lifetime, redefining loyalty and patriotism as he sometimes even flew in from England three hours before the game and still take his place in the starting XI — was priceless.
For me, King Peter’s farewell from the big stage is what defined my 2006 AFCON adventure in Egypt and, 13 years later, on my return to the Land of the Pharaohs for another Nations Cup adventure, I still get goosebumps just thinking about it, about the man, and everything he did for our football, and more importantly, for our country.
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE, THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME
Thirteen years ago, when the AFCON finals were last held in Egypt, a Warrior was celebrating his big move, with Benjani having completed his multi-million dollar transfer from French side Auxerre to English team Portsmouth. There will be no private jets this time around, but another key Warrior, 22-year-old highly-rated midfielder Marshall Munetsi, is in Egypt just after completing a big career move from South Africa to the French-top-flight league. Marshall is part of the new generation of Warriors who emerged on the scene in the last two years and, when Sunday Chidzambwa first saw him at a tournament in Ndola, Zambia, he was so certain he had just seen a gem who would be the heart and soul of the Warriors for a long time.
Marshall had just left his teenage years back then, was virtually unknown back home, but he made such a huge impression in that tournament, the veteran coach was so sure the tough midfielder wasn’t a fluke but the genuine article, something he had seen again and again among many other similar young players in the past.
“He will play in Europe, no doubt about that, because he has the physique that one needs, he has the intelligence to play either in the deep-lying role in midfield or in central defence and he is very comfortable on the ball,’’ Mhofu told this newspaper. The veteran coach should know. After all, 16 years ago, he trusted the same instincts to not only take Tinashe Nengomasha, then still eight months short of his 22nd birthday, and who also played in the same defensive midfield role, to the Warriors’ maiden AFCON finals adventure in Tunisia in 2004.
He made history when he became the youngest Zimbabwean to feature in an AFCON finals match in that group game against Egypt in Tunisia when he was part of the 11 Warriors who took on the Pharaohs at the Stade Taeib El Mhiri in Sfax on January 25, 2004.
And, in February this year, he correctly predicted that Marshall was set for the big time.
“I think we are seeing the emergence of a genuinely talented Zimbabwean football star, maybe the face of this emerging crop of good players we are seeing in our country,” said Nengomasha.
The least this new generation of Warriors — powered by two players who never graced the domestic Premiership, Knowledge and Marshall, and a third rejected by CAPS fans as not good enough, Khama — can do is use this AFCON to honour the image and service of the King himself. That means doing something which has never been done before, qualifying from the group stages of the tourney.
Ironically, the letter “M” keeps being the dominant factor in all this — from the King himself, who grew up in Makokoba, to become our greatest leader of these Warriors, Benjani, who grew up in Magwegwe and ended up arriving in Cairo on a private jet and Marshall, who grew up in Mabvuku, and has now arrived in Egypt as the latest recruit into the French top-flight league. Atamanaa lak kl khayr (all the best) Warriors, Inshallah (God willing), we will do well in the Land of the Pharaohs!
You can also interact with me on Twitter — @Chakariboy, Facebook, Instagram — sharukor and interact with me every Wednesday night, at 9.45pm, when I join the legendary Charles “CNN’’ Mabika and producer Craig “Master Craig’’ Katsande on the television magazine programme, “Game Plan”.