By Langton Nyakwenda
He is the oldest member of this history-making Kaizer Chiefs squad and yet he is still central to their CAF Champions League campaign, forcing himself into the starting eleven.
Willard Katsande was relegated to the bench for much of Kaizer Chiefs DStv Premiership season in which they staggered to an eighth-place finish in the 2021/2022 season.
However, the gritty midfielder has been putting some commanding shows in the Champions League for Amakhosi, who are now on the cusp of breaking a 51-year-old jinx.
Katsande turned 35 in January and is the oldest player that Kaizer Chiefs have used on their way to the Champions League.
The veteran midfielder is almost assured of starting the final against Egyptian giants Al Ahly on July 17.
Kaizer Chiefs have never featured in the final of the CAF Champions League in their 51-year history, and this feat has come in a season when they made it into the group stages for the first time.
They had previously failed to sail past the preliminary rounds, before taking a sabbatical from the tournament citing the prohibitive costs of participating.
And Katsande, who has now made a remarkable 325 appearances for the South African side, is naturally basking in glory.
He insists he is doing it “for the future generation of Zimbabwean players”.
The former Warriors skipper was outstanding in both legs of the semi-finals against Moroccan giants Wydad Casablanca, from which Chiefs emerged 1-0 winners on aggregate. The team will now face Pitso Mosimane’s nine-time champions Al Ahly as underdogs at Stade Mohamed V Stadium in Casablanca, Morocco, on July 17.
Yet for all the history he has made at the club, including eclipsing Tinashe Nengomasha’s record for the most appearances by a foreigner, he remains modest.
“I have been here (at Kaizer Chiefs) for 10 years now, but I am not doing it for myself. I am planting a seed for the next generation of Zimbabweans who will come here to play for Chiefs.
“They will know that this is their home,” Katsande told The Sunday Mail Sport.
A love story with Zimbabweans
From Ebson “Sugar” Muguyo, who was the first Zimbabwean to play for Chiefs in the 1970s, Hussein Amidu, Claudius Zviripayi, Rabson Mchichwa, Tinashe Nengomasha, Thomas Sweswe to the latest generation of Knowledge Musona, Khama Billiat and Katsande, Chiefs have always had a sweet romance with Zimbabweans.
This is precisely the reason why their historic achievement is being celebrated north of the Limpopo.
“Kaizer Chiefs have always shown that they believe in Zimbabwean talent. We are always hearing stories of how good the yesteryear players who played here were.
“It started with Mudhara Muguyo, the likes of Mchichwa, Nengomasha also came and starred here. They laid the foundation for us Zimbabweans to feel at home whenever we are at Chiefs,” said Katsande.
“They kept on doing well; they were not doing it for themselves, but for the next generation, that is us who are enjoying the fruits.
“When we are here, we are representing Zimbabwe; it’s about the nation.
“Zimbabweans are hard workers and we are here to do a good job.”
The former Gunners and Ajax Cape Town midfielder will be playing in the Champions League final for the first time in his career.
Ironically, it comes at a time when he is in the twilight of a career that saw him lead the Warriors to their third Africa Cup of Nations finals in Gabon in 2017 under Kallisto Pasuwa.
History also beckons for Khama Billiat, who, should be recover in time for the epic encounter against Al Ahly, could become the only Zimbabwean to feature in the Champions League final with two different clubs.
The 30-year-old talismanic forward featured for 2016 champions Mamelodi Sundowns in a memorable season in which he was crowned the best player in South Africa.
Katsande, however, says Kaizer Chiefs are not in the final just to make the numbers.
“The CAF Champions League final is huge; (it is) the biggest stage in African club football and you don’t know if you will make it again in your lifetime.
“The club haven’t been there; it’s the first time and I am part and parcel of the group. I am blessed. It’s not all players who play African football who end up playing in a Champions League final.
“We are enjoying the moment and we are going there (to the final) not to make numbers but to make history.
“We just want to make it a reality that will be stuck in Chiefs’ history for the rest of our lives.
“We want to do this for the chairman (Bobby Motaung), especially after a bad season,” he said.
Winning the CAF Champions League could also be a befitting swansong for the player.
“We are coming to the end of our careers and we want to enjoy our game, so if you win the big like this one, you will say, ‘Wow, I did it’ . . .
“I want to be a role model for all the foreign players who want to come to play for Chiefs. You might take it lightly now, but when you retire you will realise you have done something for the game.”
Amakhosi are only the fourth team to reach the Champions League final without conceding at home throughout the competition.
Tunisian giants Esperance twice achieved that in 1999 and 2011, going all the way in the competition without conceding at home.
In 1999, they didn’t concede at home but lost on penalties to Raja Casablanca, while in 2011 they were champions without conceding at home, winning 1-0 on aggregate in the final.
Some Zimbabwean Chiefs legends like Mchichwa, who played for the Soweto giants between 1996 and 2004, are revelling in the fairy tale of the class of 2021.
“They (Kaizer Chiefs) have not been doing well in the last five or six years, so this is a great come-back,” says Mchichwa, a Chiefs poster boy who earned the moniker “Sarafina” at the peak of his powers.
“If they go on to win it, they will have covered for the failures of the last five years.
“Chiefs have always had a Zimbabwean player in their team almost every season and I think it’s a recipe that works for them.
“Zimbabwean players are hardworking . . . so it’s a relationship that has mutual benefit and one that has stood the test of time,” he said.
The former Zimbabwe international midfielder now coaches Pretoria Athletic Academy.
Ex-defender Thomas Sweswe, who charmed Chiefs legend Lucas Radebe when he first arrived at Naturena in 2009, feels proud to be a part of the club’s history.
He made 74 appearances for the South African glamour club.
“Playing for Chiefs is a big highlight of my career; it showed me anything is possible with God,” said Sweswe.
The former Manning Rangers, Highlanders and Dynamos player is now secretary-general of the Footballers Union of Zimbabwe (FUZ).
“I played against big teams like Manchester City and Tottenham because of Chiefs. To be where I am now is because of Chiefs; that’s where I managed to make some money to buy my properties, so I am always grateful to the club.
“I wish them all the best in the final,” he said.
Former Dynamos and Fire Batteries versatile player Hussein Amidu was at Kaizer Chiefs at the same time with Mike Maringa and Zviripayi between 1993 and 1994.
“Kaizer Chiefs was a good home for me and the set-up was really professional. Imagine, back in 1993 we already had individual lockers and the team had its own training ground.
“I just want to wish them good luck in the CAF Champions League final. This is a huge achievement and it means a lot to some of us who were once part of this great club.
“Teams like Chiefs have always been ahead of Zimbabwean teams in terms of organisation and professionalism.
“When I arrived there, the Naturena Village was yet to be built; it was still a plan, but they went on to implement the plan. They just don’t talk, they act,” said Amidu.
His son Abbas also played for Amakhosi.
Kelvin Mushangazhike, Teenage Hadebe, Onismor Bhasera, Matthew Rusike, Lincoln Zvasiya, Michelle Katsvairo, Edmore Chirambadare, Kingstone Nkatha, Ovidy Karuru, Luke Petros Jukulile and Zhaimu Jambo are also some of the Zimbabwean players who had dalliances with the South African club. The Sunday Mail