By Lot Chitakasha
“In 1982, I decided to take time off the game that I loved. I was about to write my O-Level exams and I thought it was crucial to focus on studying. Playing football was fun but not very rewarding apart from the glory and the prestige, I knew that a Plan B was necessary, I am glad I made that conscious decision, I now have a life after football…”
What prompted this bold declaration by Francis Nechironga was the raw nerve that we had touched on the plight of former footballers, who find themselves cast adrift when their days of fame are gone. Ignored by football administrators, treated like lepers by their former clubs and often derided at the various drinking holes littered throughout the country by fans who used to glorify them, some former greats indeed cut a sorry sight. For me this treatment of these Heroes is an abomination!
Football fans of a certain generation will remember well Francis Nechironga, a man renowned for his pace, physical fitness, strength and booming shots at goal. Many newspaper reports of the 1980’s and the early 90’s describe Francis as a “bustling striker, energetic who uses his strength to terrorise defenders…” Indeed Francis was a feared striker whose career blossomed during his high school days at St. Peters Kubatana High school before he joined Caps United, Dairiboard FC, Rio-Dairiboard eventually finishing his career at Arcadia United.
But how did it all begin?
There a number of football families in Zimbabwe and in an earlier article , I mentioned that the Chieza family can be regarded as the First Family of Zimbabwe football. This is because at one point, seven brothers played for Mhangula F C, an African and maybe an a world record.
The Nechirongas run them a close second although the brothers did not play for the same team. Francis ‘s father is the late Jewatt who played and won the league for St Pauls Musami in 1966 under the tutelage of Father Arthur Davis.
Jewatt’s other brothers are Percy who played for Umtali United, Patrick, Harare Hospital and Chapungu, Gibson , Redwing, Reginald, Arcadia, Kennedy , Charles and Edward Pondo who also played for Lusaka Hotspurs. Jawett also bestowed to the nation 1990 Soccer Star of the year, George “Tyson” Nechironga.
“We are a truly football and sporting clan, my other uncle Gerald Nechironga was also good but decided to pursue rugby , Gibson was a boxing champion for Raylton Sports Club while my sister played netball for the Zimbabwe National team and is still playing in South Africa…we have sporting genes.” Francis added proudly.
One man had a great impact on Francis’s football career, a man who would drive him together with other kids all the way from Chishawasha Mission to Harare to watch football games. That man was Father Davis , Francis speaks affectionately about this white missionary who had a passion for football and education.
He says, “Father Davis was a football man and an educationist, a man of the people. He used to pack us like sardines in his old truck and drive us all the way from Chishawasha Mission to Gwanzura Stadium to watch football. He had mentored my father’s career and he also planted the love of football in me.
When he moved to St Peters Kubatana, he wanted to establish a football academy, the idea was to replicate the success enjoyed at St Pauls Musami. He built a decent pitch, built houses for the players and imported football equipment from Germany. He also send some players for attachments in Germany, we were going to be the first football academy in the country..” Francis narrated nostalgically.
Father Davis wanted the players to study in the morning and play football in the afternoon. The team was supposed to be registered but when a new Headmaster was appointed by the Ministry of education, he disrupted all the plans. He felt that resources were being wasted on football , teachers and pupils alike were fed with the wrong information and they went on strike.
After protracted negotiations , Father Davis agreed to step aside and become a figurehead Principal of the school and with that the football vision was aborted. The assembled team however did play a number of friendly matches and in one such match they massacred the University Of Zimbabwe 33-0 , a records which still stands.
Francis also praises Father Davis’s educational vision. “ He targeted the poor, he opened the school to all and sundry, academic ability was not priority, he believed that everyone had a talent. He offered course to empower students, bricklaying, carpentry, metal work, marimba playing, students went on tours in Germany. There was a technical department which offered course like motor mechanics, fitting and turning and students did these even without the magical five O-levels often regarded as the silver bullet by modern educationists.”, said Francis.
Indeed many less academically gifted students benefitted from the good priest’s vision. He believed in training the mind and the hands and well known industrialist Danmore Kaduku is a product of this approach.
With the St. Peters Kubatana Academy path aborted, Francis joined Caps United, a team packed to the brim with a galaxy of stars. Joel Shambo, Stix Mtizwa , Stanley Ndunduma, Shacky Tauro, Charlie Jones, Friday Phiri to mention but a few were teammate .
His chances with the first team were limited and coupled with his decision to focus on his studies, he found himself on the periphery. He did have some great moments including travelling to Lesotho and Nigeria for the African Cup Winners cup match.
After completing his O-Levels he enrolled at Seke Teachers College emerging with a Diploma in Education. He was deployed to teach at Kudakwashe Primary School in Harare where he spent 11 years . “These were my best years, I was following in the footstep of my mentor, Father Davis, teaching and coaching football. I helped to groom Mike “Mbozha” Temwanjira and Engelbert Kahuni, cherished moments , he said with a proud smile.
Francis combined his teaching career with the football one . He played for Dairiborad, which ran into financial problems and combined with Rio Tinto to form Rio Dairiboard. Here he played with the cream of Zimbabwe football, players such as Ephert Lungu, Joseph Zulu, Raphael Phiri, David Mwanza and coached by John Rugg.
When the team again ran into sponsorship problems, he joined Arcadia United, a great community team. There were great players at Arcadia and he really enjoyed his stay. “I played some of my best football at Arcadia United” After close to a decade of top flight football, Francis hung up his boots.
Francis’ word of advice to former and current players is, “Football is a short career, in Zimbabwe , it does not pay well. Most of us played for the glory. Those who want to go into coaching or administration should prepare themselves while still playing.
It pains me to see former greats looking lost because they cannot find meaning to their lives. As a mental health nurse, I know the psychological impact of lost fame, depression can set in and many resort to the bottle. I intend to do more to educate my peers in this regard. Those young players who are in their prime should train hard, keep their focus, avoid drugs and alcohol and also plan for the future. They must listen to their coaches and other football elders who have seen it all…”
These were wise words indeed from the legend. Francis is now based in the UK and works as Forensic Nurse. He is married and has two children.
“I have no regrets, football gave us fame but little fortune, it is a recurrent theme for those of our generation, but life goes on..” he concluded. I would not agree more, life indeed must go on!