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English Football …Tribute to the African greats

By Lot Chitakasha

The British Empire used to touch all four corners of the globe. English became the lingua franca, the international language of choice. Cecil John Rhodes the hated colonialist and business tycoon boasted, “Remember you are an Englishman and have consequently won the first prize in the lottery of life..” Although the empire comprises Wales, Scotland and England, it is the latter which takes pride of place in this marriage. In fact many people think that England is Britain, obviously the Welsh and the Scottish are not amused by this.

Peter Ndlovu and Bruce Grobbelaar playing for the Zimbabwe Warriors
Peter Ndlovu and Bruce Grobbelaar playing for the Zimbabwe Warriors

The Empire has since broken up, many former colonies have reclaimed their independence. However , something else has come on board, the British game or to narrow it down, the English Premiership.

The popularity of this league has ensured that the English dominance in world affairs cannot be deleted. In many parts of the world including Africa, it has been accepted as the best league and the most watched. Africa has contributed to this massive growth and in this article , I pay tribute to the players who have made this possible.

I listened to Professor Lumumba, a man renowned for his anti-corruption crusades in his native Kenya and Africa at large. He is a man who seeks to put Africa at the centre of all discussions on developments issues. He is a committed Pan Africanist.

In one of his speeches he castigated Africans and African youths in particular for their total rejection of everything African and the unthinking consumption of everything foreign. This extents to education, music and sport. He berated them for lacking pride in Mfulira Wanderers, Gor Mahia, Dynamos, Yanga, Assec Mimosa but knowing every detail about Arsenal, Man United, Liverpool, Chelsea among other world football giants. He bemoaned what he called a new form of cultural imperialism, the capture of the African mind by this dominance of the European football.

I have massive respect for the Professor but on this one , I think he is fighting a losing battle. In Shona we have an idiom..Chakabaya chikatyokera, literally translated to mean that a habit is deeply imbedded in the DNA it cannot be broken. This is the case with our addiction to English and European football in general, it is a mindset which is difficult to shift.

Having said this , let me therefore celebrate the players whom I feel have illuminated the English premiership in the process making us very proud as Africans. As Zimbabwe, we can be very proud of our contribution to this brand.

They called Bruce Grobelaar, the Jungleman because of his journey from the then Rhodesia to Canada before establishing himself as one of Liverpool’s greatest goalkeepers. He was a flamboyant and eccentric goalkeeper credited with establishing Liverpool’s dominance in the 1980’s and early 90’s .

He won 6 league title,3 F A cups , 3 league cups one European cup . He remains a Liverpool legend despite the match fixing scandals that followed him later. In between his busy schedule, he did not forget the nation. He played in the Dream Team and took them within a whisker of qualification for Afcon and the World Cup. I have great memories of this era.

Peter “Nsunkusonke” Ndlovu was known as the Flying Elephant( his totem) during his playing days at Coventry, Birmingham, Huddersfield, Sheffield United. Commentators struggled to pronounce his name calling him Peter N..DLOVU, but his mesmerising skills made them run out of superlatives. For

13 years, Peter terrorised defenders in England and even managed to bury a hat trick at Anfield road which is a record in itself. He was also the first African player to play in the new English Premier League when the powers that be decided to move from the old first division.

Peter was simply unstoppable on his day, drawing comparison to the Manchester united genius, George Best. As a proud Zimbabwean, I am so proud of what he achieved but I often wonder why the top four clubs of the time never signed him. He definitely deserved better.

Benjamin Mwaruwaru, nicknamed the Undertaker was a hard working striker who played for Portsmouth, Manchester City and Blackburn. Among Zimbabwean fans he divides opinion with some attributing his success down to luck and being at the right place at the right time.

However, I beg to differ, the legend was talented and complemented it with hard work. In England I often read the Mirror, Sun and Guardian newspapers and I try to compare the ratings that they give players after every match. Benjani ‘s mark never strayed far from a seven out of ten, a very good mark by any stretch of the imagination. I respect the career that he had in England.

Due to the challenge of space, I will mention briefly the stars from other African nations who helped to grow this league.

Lucas Radebe played and captained Leeds United. They regard him highly and a musical group was named after his original team, Kaiser Chiefs. The group still exists. This was like a big thank you to the team for producing such as star. He was nicknamed the Chief for his defensive solidity. South Africa also gave the league Phillemon “Chippa” Masinga,Shaun Bartlett, Mark Fish, Aaaron Mokoena , Steve Pienaar and a retiring Ben Mcarthy. The nation can be proud of this contribution.

Nigeria has had many stars who have contributed immensely to the growth of this league. The nation produced Nwanko Kanu, a man who played football at his own pace. He never seemed to be in a hurry and redefined the art of moving gracefully across a football pitch with that languid and unique style.

He played a massive role in the Arsenal Invincibles of 2003/4 hence his place in the history of English football is ensured. Nigeria also blessed the league with Joseph Yobo who captained Everton and Daniel “The Bull” Amokachi, the first one million pound player when he signed for Everton. The list also includes Yakubu, Celestine Babayaro, Obi Mikel and Obafemi Martins.

However the main man from Nigeria has to be Augustine “Jay Jay” Okocha, the man who could make a football talk. He was the pick of the crop and left a permanent imprint on the English game.

The man had some audacious skills prompting his coach at Bolton, Big Sam Allardyce to say, “ I want to sit down with Sir Alex Ferguson and ask him why he never signed Okocha..”

This was after Okocha had produced a midfield master class which left all at Old Trafford in awe of his amazing skills. The man was unbelievable.

With all due respect to Bolton, the man deserved a bigger club to exhibit his skills. The Nigerian baton is still being carried by young Alex Awobi, Okocha’s cousin and Ikelechi Ineacho.

Ivory Coast has had the bulk of stars. Didier Drobga was the top man and had an amazing career at Chelsea. He dominated defenders sometimes reducing them to a nervous wreck. Phillip Senderos the Arsenal defender was tipped to be the next Tony Adams. However after an encounter with Drobga , he was reduced to tears and he never recovered his confidence. The nation has also

produced brothers Kolo and Yaya Toure. They are both league winners and Kolo was part of the Arsenal Invincibles. Others from this nation include Cheik Toite, Emmanuel Eboue and Gervinho.

The proud nation of Ghana has contributed with Tony Yeboah, he scored the goal of the season in 1992. Others include Michael Essien and Sully Muntari. Legend Abedi Pele never graced the league but his dynasty is being carried by son Jordan and Andre .

The nation of Senegal has produced some great players for this league. Patrick Viera captained The Arsenal Invincibles, what a player he was. Al Haj Diouf will best be remembered for the spitting incidents and the dives but he was a good player for Liverpool. Papa Cisse had a habit of scoring spectacular goals. Papa Diop was known as the Wardrobe for his immense frame and currently Liverpool rely on the prolific Saido Mane while Kouyate is doing well at West Ham.

We can also claim Ngolo Kante, Bacary Sagna, Claude Makelele but we might get into an unending dispute with France so I will let sleeping dogs lie. George Weah had a last minute dance with the league during the sunset of his illustrious career. It has not been all rosy though, we just have to ask Manchester United fans about Eric Djemba Djemba from Cameroon!

Indeed African nations should be proud to have made this contribution. I have left out a number of players, the impact has been great. In the greater scheme of things , the best African players should be playing in Africa. This will make the leagues very strong. However because our football is still growing, the wages are not good enough so players move to better leagues.

We should aim to make the leagues in Africa more professional, richer and more rewarding. Until this happens, we will have to be satisfied when one of our own makes it big at Liverpool, Arsenal or Manchester United. We should not be ashamed that we have helped to grow this league, the players are our ambassadors.