By Besa Mwaba
In a few days’ time, Zambia takes to the field against Kenya is an important Africa cup qualifier. Given that the opening match ended in a disappointing draw, it’s the wish of every fan that a strong team be assembled to reap a positive result. It is also every fan’s wish that the back room issues concerning players have been addressed.
A few weeks ago, Chisamba Lungu vented out his frustration at the Zambia National team bench. His bone of contention was that it was entirely pointless for the coach to recall him from Russia where he plays his professional club football only to come to Zambia and yet fail to make the cut for the starting eleven. Considering that Lungu is not only an Africa cup gold medalist but also captain at FC Ural, it is probably understandable that the winger with immense dribbling skills should feel disrespected and alarmed by his current standing in the national team.
Feeling that one is entitled to an automatic starting berth in the national team by virtue of his playing abroad is not new. Sentiments similar to Lungu’s have been expressed at different frequencies ever since the foreign based/ local based player divide came into prominence in the 1980s. Angry sentiments to the same effect were echoed 26 years ago by a star player based in Belgium, Stone Nyirenda. A stout, marauding and prowling striker, he was nicknamed “Mukango” at his prime. Nyirenda was a key member and first choice striker for the KK11 at the historic 1988 Olympics. A few months later, the 1990 World cup Qualifiers begun in earnest. Nyirenda saw no reason why he could not naturally assume that he would be the man to lead the Zambian attack at that crucial phase. Watching the coach prefer young Kenneth “Bubble” Malitoli- a local striker with Nkana Red Devils- to him angered Nyirenda to a point where he found it necessary to air his grievances in the media against the coaching team led by Samuel “Zoom” Ndhlovu.
In effect, the position of Nyirenda then and Lungu now is that national team positions are not always given on merit and that unqualified favorites are picked instead. Unfortunately for soccer managers, this is a widely perceived view in public domain.
It is one thing to suspect that your coach has favorites who do not include you and another thing entirely if you feel that the coach hates you personally. Left unresolved this mindset can wreak havoc on a team. What happened in the aftermath of the Gabon tragedy illustrates this point.
After a rushed assembly of the national team following the 1993 plane crash, it became apparent that the team was to be built around the experienced players (Kenneth Malitoli, Gibby Mbasela, Kapambwe Mulenga, Emmanuel Munaile, Linos Makwaza, Johnson Bwalya and Kalusha Bwalya) and supported by exceptionally good newcomers. This clearly was the wish of the average soccer fan and was a widely expressed view in the media as well. However after drilling the team for a month in Europe, Roald Poulsen began to see things differently.
In the emotional opening match against Morocco at independence stadium on 4th July 1993, Poulsen made what passed for a contentious team selection decision. He opted to start with Douglas Mwamba from Kabwe Warriors on the right wing leaving out the experienced and robust Johnson Bwalya. It had to take coach Fred Mwila to force matters and reinstall Johnson Bwalya in the first team, albeit in an unfamiliar central attacking position. As far as Poulsen was concerned there weren’t supposed to have automatic places in the team.
Barely days later, another prima donna popped up with a similar grievance. Gibby Mbasela was a foreign based player too and where spell binding dribbling skills were concerned, he had no peers. He felt that he was entitled to a starting berth in the young team. However in the Africa cup qualifiers against South Africa and also against Zimbabwe played on 11th and 25th July respectively, Gibby did not make the starting eleven. When Zambia played against Senegal in a crucial world cup qualifier in Abidjan (Ivory Coast) on 7th August, he had to come in as a substitute. That match ended in a draw and effectively shut the door to the 1994 world cup dream. Frustrated, Gibby announced that he had pulled out of the national team.
Gibby wasn’t the only star suffering from a bruised ego in the team at that time. Even the eccentric Kapambwe Mulenga did not want to be spending any time on the bench and he too pulled out of the team after the draw against Senegal.
Although too late, FAZ was able to reconcile the factions and shepherd the two players back into the fold.
But of course, a few months later at the 1994 Tunisia Africa cup, it was the same Gibby Mbasela who was expelled from the squad after he had refused even to accompany the team to the stadium after learning that he would not be in the starting lineup.
If there was something to be learned from that missed 1993 world cup berth therefore, it was that it is better to go into battle as a weak but disciplined and united force, than go into battle as a strong but undisciplined force lacking unity.
Interestingly, as recently as 2014 the same dilemma is what faced coach Honor Janza when it became apparent that team captain Chris Katongo was no longer going to follow the party line. Katongo is reported to have been unhappy about the bench warming business and is also said to have openly criticized the tactics employed by the coach. There was only going to be one bull in the kraal and the coach chose to expel the captain from the team thereby preferring to advance with an inexperienced but united team.
Katongo is by no means the only player to have been expelled from the team due to dissent. At the 2012 Africa cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea, coach Herve Renard expelled winger Clifford Mulenga from the squad after the latter had broken curfew rules together with a few other players. That the relationship between Renard and Clifford had deteriorated to embarrassing levels prior to the expulsion is well known. Needless to say, had the team produced another annoying performance at that tournament, most likely the issue of Clifford’s expulsion would have been angrily revisited by fans.
There are of course numerous other instances which can be cited on this topic. But the lesson ought to be learned that team selection should always be on merit and not based on past glory. It also ought to be borne in mind that discipline and unity are the hallmarks of a successful team. Above all, lines of communication should be left open in the team, and the team should be able to buy into the vision of their manager.