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A look at some of the best defensive midfielders to emerge from Zimbabwe

By Danai Chitakasha

Many defensive midfielders have graced the Zimbabwe football terrain. These anchormen, who solidify the spine of the team, are often ignored when the plaudits are dished out.

Tinashe Nengomasha
Ex-Kaizer Chiefs hardman Tinashe Nengomasha seen here during a morning training session with Wits on 5 July 2012 (© Chris Ricco/ BackpagePix)

The focus is usually on the attacking midfielders and the strikers, leaving the hunters and gatherers of the ball to feed on crumbs.

The inimitable Eric Cantona once dismissed the serial winner Didier Deschamps as a mere “water carrier” for Zinedine Zidane. I guess he could say the same about many defensive midfielders.

However, in Zimbabwe, many of these so-called defensive linkmen were also capable of advancing into enemy territory and score a few goals. They did not just sit in front of the back four.

Let me pick a few legends who played this role to perfection and give them their bells. Because of limited space, I will look at the 10 whom I watched, heard or read about.

I will also stick to the post-Independence era. In no particular order, here are my Top 10:

1. David Mandigora — The 1980 Soccer Star of the Year award winner who played for Dynamos was known for his graft in the middle of the park which allowed the likes of Hamid “Muzukuru” Dhana to shine without worrying about defensive duties. “Yogi” as he is known in football circles was tireless and was a long-range booming shots specialist. Winning the Soccer Star of the Year award speaks volume about his abilities.

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2. David Mwanza — Nicknamed “Chikwama”, the tireless midfielder who played for Rio Tinto before moving to State House Tornadoes and later Darryn T, was renowned for his booming shots. He played for the senior national team for close to 10 years. I can describe “Chikwama” as a box-to-box player, he had the energy to go up and down. As we say in the football language, he had a big engine.

3. Shepherd Muradzikwa — The nickname “Dragline” says it all. He was a powerhouse in midfield and his only undoing was that he played for the so-called small teams. He played for Wankie, Rio Tinto and Arcadia United. National team selectors, however, noted his abilities although the fans were not always appreciative. I remember one match at the National Sports Stadium when Zimbabwe played against Namibia. The fans booed Muradzikwa’s every touch of the ball. He did not get unsettled and when a loose ball came his way, he hammered it hard and low from about 30 metres. It was a scorcher and it immediately silenced the “Boo Boys”. I think Muradzikwa is among the top five hard heaters of the ball in Zimbabwe.

4. David Muchineripi — He played for Black Aces and later Dynamos. He was versatile and that is why at Dynamos he also played as a right back. At Black Aces and the national team he was an anchorman. Nicknamed “Mukoma Fembera Fembera” because with the ball at his feet anything was possible. He was capable of the booming long-range shots. He scored many good goals because of this ability.

5. Willard Mashinkila-Khumalo — The ever-popular and ebullient “Mahwiii’’ was a capable ball winner and distributor. What set him apart from most defensive linkmen of his generation was his ability to lift the crowd with a bit of showboating on the ball. “Mahwiii!!!” the crowd would chant in response after his trademark gallop with the ball at his feet. The legend was popular across the football divide and was known for a clever quip in interviews. He once said: “Doctor Khumalo is too beautiful to play football!” in reference to the handsome South African star man. That was “Mahwii’’ for you, what a character!

6. Benjamin Nkonjera — Nicknamed “Makanaky’’ after the legendary Cameroon Italia ‘90 hero Cyrille Makanaky, the diminutive anchor was a respected ball winner. He was often criticised for being too conservative in possession and lacking the forward pass. During the Dream Team era, this was a stick that was used to beat him with. In later years, when he moved to Amazulu, Nkonjera evolved and actually added goals to his playing style.

7. Lloyd Chitembwe — The hardworking and no-nonsense anchorman kept it simple, he collected the ball and gave it to those with the fancy skills. In the swashbuckling CAPS United team which won the league in 1996, Chitembwe’s role is often underappreciated. Those who understand football, however, will always remember that he was the steady hand that made the Green Machine midfield tick. Alongside Farai “Mr. Perfect” Mbidzo and Joe “Kode” Mugabe, that midfield department was a well-oiled machine.

8. Esrom Nyandoro — Nicknamed “Yellow”, he played for Amazulu before establishing himself as one of Zimbabwe’s best foreign exports in South Africa where he played for Mamelodi Sundowns. Esrom was hardworking, disciplined and contributed the odd goal for the team. His goal against Cameroon during the history making AFCON tournament in Tunisia will live long in the memories of all those who watched the match. The legend was a model professional.

9.Tinashe Nengomasha — He had an interesting nickname “Father”. Was it for the manner in which he bossed the midfield department? Tinashe was really good and at Kaizer Chiefs he is regarded as a kingpin. He also had a successful stint with the Zimbabwe Warriors.

10. Desmond Maringwa — Nicknamed “Gazza”, Maringwa was on the rise until injuries derailed his career. Before the unfortunate injury, Gazza was on the radar of Spanish La Liga giants Celta Vigo. According to reports, they wanted to sign him as a direct replacement of Claude Makelele the man who gave rise to the “Makelele role”. This says a lot about the abilities of the Zimbabwe legend. Shame about the injury curse.

Some might wonder why I left out a legend like Memory “Mwendamberi” Mucherahowa. I had a discussion with the legend here in England and he said: “Many fans describe me as a defensive linkman, but normally I had a free role. Players like Ernest Masango, Hope Chihota, Elvis Chiweshe, Biggie Zuze and even Nyasha Kanogoiwa played in that role “.

On the basis of this view, I decided to leave him out.

Legends like David Zulu, Chingumbe Masuku, Blessing Gumiso, Ferdinand Mwachindalo, Charles “The Chief “ Chilufya, Leo Kurauzvione, Mthulisi Maphosa, Ashley Rambanepasi, Farai Mbidzo, Danny “Deco” Phiri, Alois “Shaw” Godzi, Tavaka Gumbo, Gary Mkandawire, John Phiri and Max Ruza also deserve to be mentioned in this roll call of honours.

Let the debate begin. The Herald