By Lovemor Dube
Ernest Mpala, the former Railstars and Bulawayo Province Under-20 football coach barked his last instructions on 13 October as he bid this world bye.
A strong bout of inyongo hit him leaving the former player and coach deeply dehydrated.
The father of three was buried at West Park Cemetery on 18 October without the adulation that surrounded his crowning moment in 1997 when his baby Railstars won promotion into the Premiership.
Old Lobengula was robbed of its hero, a man who made his mark in Bulawayo and Zimbabwe football but remained as cool as cucumber.
He joined a list of hundreds of former sports stars buried just by a handful of those they created and the multitudes they entertained.
His burial was low key as the football people in Zimbabwe had completely forgotten about him since he was no longer in mainstream football.
Such is the sad story about our yesteryear greats. They are forgotten as soon as the ink of the last story while they are active dries in our newspapers.
Mpala was among the big stories though not much was said about him in the 1990s.
When the National Railways of Zimbabwe thought of harnessing talent from within its countrywide stations to form one football side to gun for Premiership status, Mpala was among the coaches tasked with that.
As a railwayman whose job entailed going to other stations within the system and an active member for the annual General Manager’s Trophy, he had a clear idea of who was where.
Sadly for him Railstars were now defunct. It was a team once in existence in the 1970s playing in the unfashionable lower divisions in Bulawayo with Friday Phiri, the late Caps United and Warriors forward among the most high profile figures to turn out for the side.
So it was starting from scratch tapping on the huge resource the National Railways of Zimbabwe had.
While the staff complement was being trimmed from over 21 000 system wide, Mpala and his colleagues still had a pool of over 12 000 when Railstars found its feet in 1995, playing in the Zifa Southern Region Division One in 1996 and getting promoted in 1997 into the Premiership.
He was able, with renowned personalities in the NRZ like Abraham “Ngida” Madondo and Ketsepilemang Ndebele, to build a formidable side.
Players like Alexander Mwale, Given Sakala, Mbunge Khumalo and Kanjere Mbewe were drawn from the railway league combined with Master Masiku, Wisdom Sibanda, Thabani Sibanda, Kelvin Maseko and Simba Rusike woven into an exciting youthful side.
It was a remarkable feat that Bulawayo celebrated.
There were other colourful development in Mpala’s era like Highlanders winning the league title in 1990 and 1993, the formation of AmaZulu, a development that ushered professional management of the game, Phinda Mzala where pure talent was harnessed and thrown into the limelight by Charles Mhlauri and women’s outfit New Orleans.
AmaZulu and Railstars’ emergence meant Highlanders and Zimbabwe Saints had cut on outside of Bulawayo trips.
Mpala was born in the region in 1949 and grew up in Mpompoma where he attended Nkulumane Primary School.
He was to later move to Mzingwane Secondary School.
By then the football bug had caught up with him, playing for a number of lower division clubs. In the process football drove his job stints as he went on to play and work for clubs associated with these companies — Security Mills, Coca-Cola, National Foods, Turnall and NRZ.
But it is at Mthala and Railstars that Mpala made his mark, coaching a number of talented players who went on to make a mark for themselves.
He worked with legends like Ernest Sibanda in developing talent in Mpopoma, a neighbourhood he never turned his back on despite moving to Old Lobengula where his family still lives.
At one stage according to his wife Senzeni, he played with two-season wonderboy Moses Madalaboy Moyo the 1974 Soccer Star of the Year.
“He spoke fondly of the days he played with Madalaboy Moyo. Football is all he liked talking about,” reminisced his widow Senzeni on Friday afternoon.
She said Mpala liked football and would spend many hours glued to the screen following proceedings of the game.
“I worked with Mpala at the NRZ. We shared a passion for the game and spoke endless hours about the South Zone a league formed in 1977 when Highlanders pulled out of the Rhodesia National Football League.”
To some football excursions rarely come as exciting as that. We were in most instances in agreement that the present Division One Soccer Leagues were a farce and no way near in terms of quality and competition to the past.
He would say players like Alfred Phiri, Francis Sikhosana, Conrad Nkomazana, Mactavish Dube, Majuta Mpofu, Doughty Sithole, Douglas Mloyi, Lemmy Mnenekwa, Onias Musana, Thomas Chipembere, Danny Mahaso, Grey Mkandawire Ncube, Boyce Malunga, Tito Paketh and the Bonzaieer brothers among the best in that era in Division One, were export quality.
Mpala was a man who lived football and deserved better like many of his era.
He coached New Orleans, a baby started around 1981 by Haverson Masilela around 1981 as a boys’ only team, but only to come to prominence as a girls’ outfit in the mid to late 1990s.
Mpala is the father of former New Orleans and Mighty Warriors legend Precious Mpala better known as Gringo for her uncanny appetite for goals.
He retired from the National Railways of Zimbabwe in 2009. At the time of his death Mpala had long kicked the bottle and was a born again Christian. He was now a member of Zaoga.
His widow Senzeni said she lost a companion who cared for his family and community.
“Ubaba was a man of the people who loved his family. Football is all he wanted to see boys in the community play and he would encourage many not to loiter the streets but to try their luck in the game,” she said.
He is survived by his wife Senzeni, daughters Precious (39), Priscillar (37) and Promise (30) and eight grandchildren. Sunday News.