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Rejected in South Africa, embraced in France

By Robson Sharuko

They lost, of course they did, and that was probably the least of surprises.

Zimbabwe's Marshall Munetsi gets his chance in Europe with Reims
Zimbabwe’s Marshall Munetsi got his chance in Europe with Reims

Kylian Mbappe scored, of course he did, not once but twice, and that wasn’t even a surprise.

Between the French sniper’s two goals, he scored, or so we thought and, in a way, that was probably the biggest surprise.

Our steely Warrior, known more for his defensive than attacking qualities, was writing his name in the stars, as a goal-scorer, against this All-Star opponent.

Maybe, it was just too good, to be true.

And, shortly afterwards, our celebrations were soon quashed, by the intervention of the Video Assistant Referee.

His strike was chalked off, after technology ruled there had been an offside, in the build-up, before he swept the ball home.

We cursed fate, depressed our golden moment had passed and the situation wasn’t helped, too, when Mbappe doubled PSG’s lead, just after the hour mark.

What we didn’t know was that the real deal, for our man, was just on the horizon.

And, a few minutes after Mbappe’s second goal, what the football world had been waiting, and yearning for, came to pass.

Lionel Messi, the six-time Ballon d’Or winner, a football god in the eyes of some, the greatest player in history, in the eyes of many had, until then, been reduced to a ringside witness to the drama at the Stade Auguste Delaune.

Now, just six minutes after the hour mark, the diminutive superstar could, at last, take his bow in his first match as a professional footballer in the colours of a club, which wasn’t Barcelona.

It’s a measure of Messi’s superstar quality, and overwhelming global appeal, that his mere presence had boosted the appeal of this Ligue 1 match, beyond imagination.

A capacity crowd of just over 21 000 poured into the stadium.

Tickets, which had been sold for between US$40 and US$200, amid subdued interest, earlier on, were now going for as much as US$7 000 in the days leading to Sunday’s match.

Demand for the tickets was coming from as far as Chile in South America, South Korea, India and even Egypt.

And, those who could not make it into the stadium turned to television and in a flash, the biggest TV audience in the history of Ligue 1, tuned in, shattering all records for the league.

Over 10,5 million viewers tuned in from France, and 6.734 million viewers, watched from Spain.

PSG waited for 66 minutes, to throw in the man, who some feel is the closest thing a human being has come to being a football god, into his first battle, in their colours.

The greatest footballer of all-time, to many, was now on the field.

Is Messi the greatest?

It’s a tricky subject, which will never get universal endorsement in a game where emotions, factional interests and generational differences will always make it impossible for the world to come up with one superstar, anointed the greatest of all-time.

Even here in Zimbabwe, we just can’t seem to agree as to who is our greatest of all-time and, with due respect to George Shaya, there is a big constituency which feels Peter Ndlovu is their choice for this title.

And, even after hearing King Peter tell them he doesn’t belong to the class of Shaya, they will tell you that it was more of diplomacy, rather than reality, from a man who has always been careful not to parade himself as a superstar.

That Peter was able to do it, on the grand stage, playing against the best in the world, added to his great service to his country, over an extended period, will always provide ammunition to those who fight in his corner.

And, they will tell you, it’s not a mere coincidence that he became the first African footballer to feature in the English Premiership and, at some point, was wanted by Liverpool and Arsenal.

Rejected in South Africa, embraced in France

It sounds funny, if not bizarre but, for those of us, who grew up in Chakari, in the ‘80s, it’s very unlikely anyone can convince us there has been a better footballer, in this country, than Mutambarika Chirwa.

He was a midfield superman, who was light years ahead of his time, a freak of nature, who made this game look easy, sometimes it looked like he was born with a football in his hands.

We will always wonder what his profile would have been today, had he got the chance to showcase his skills on the big stage, and to a bigger audience, of the top-flight league.

He almost got his chance, when John Rugg tried to take him to Rio Tinto, who were in the Super League.

But, the mine management gave him a tough choice, to accept the offer and, in the process, take his father, brothers and uncles — a clan of eight family members who were all working for Falcon Gold — with him, to his new base.

Or, alternatively, he would do the simple thing, reject the offer from Rugg and Rio Tinto, and serve our local football club and save the jobs of his entire family.

He chose his family interests, rather than his personal ambitions, and Mutambarika stayed, played for us throughout his career, and will be the first to be inducted into our team’s Hall of Fame, when we come up with one.

David Mwanza, who wasn’t even at the level of Mutambarika, accepted the Rio Tinto offer.

And, given Chikwama ended up working his way into the Warriors, will always buttress our argument that, had Mutambarika went on a similar path, his national profile, right now, would have been massive.

Victor Mapanda, too, became a household name in local football, after making his name, via Rio Tinto.

And, because of that, we will always be convinced that, had Mutamba taken his offer, his name would be a big part of domestic football’s folklore.

Okay, sorry for the detour because this isn’t a week we are celebrating the heroes of my hometown, Clifford Makiyi, Raphael “Nuvha’’ Bakacheza, Mudhara Bibo, Zedias Mudzimba, Aidan Sweet, Grey Nyamwela, to name but a few.

This is a week we are celebrating the rise of a boy from Mabvuku, the productive football hub which gave us Joe Mugabe, Brenna Msiska, Usman Misi, Oswin Kwaramba, Clever Muzuva, Wilfred and William Mugeyi, you name them.

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Somehow, his parents gave him an appropriate name, Marshall, which is a symbol of authority. A marshal is an officer of the highest rank in some military forces in the United States, he or she is a federal official responsible for doing the things, as ordered by a court of law, finding and capturing criminals.

And, in some cases, he or she is the head of the division of a police or fire department.

When Sunday Chidzambwa returned from the 2018 Four Nations tournament, in Zambia, in March 2018, declaring he had found a player who could be our best midfield enforcer for some time to come, many were surprised about the coach’s optimism.

Others even asked what the veteran gaffer was smoking.

After all, Marshall Munetsi had not set the South African Premiership alight, three years after his low-key arrival from the Friendly Academy in Harare.

He had been rejected by Muhsin Ertugral, when he arrived at Orlando Pirates, with the Turkish coach bluntly telling him he was not good enough for the Buccaneers and would not be part of his plans.

“When I went to Pirates I think that was the time when Eric Tinkler had left and there was Muhsin (Ertugral), he made it clear that he had no intention of playing me so they loaned me to Baroka,” Munetsi told MarawaSportsWorldwide.

“When I returned to Pirates there was another change in the coaching department when Micho (Milutin Sredojevic) was coming in.

“When coach Micho was there, they had their own players and they had their own ambitions, so I had to sit out six months, in the 2017/18 season, without being registered or playing.’’

But, while Munetsi was struggling for acceptance, during the initial phase of his stay in South Africa, including outright rejection by Ertugral, it wasn’t the case, when he featured for Mhofu, in Zambia.

In just 180 minutes, Mhofu saw a diamond, which just needed some polishing, where other coaches were only seeing a stone without any value, which needed to be thrown away.

In only two matches, against Zambia and Angola, Mhofu saw hidden quality, in Munetsi, where other coaches, blinded by blinkers, their poor judgment or just outright incompetence, had just seen quantity, in terms of his big frame.

And, in just two games, at that Four Nations tournament, the veteran gaffer saw someone, with the full package of a dominant midfielder, who was crying out for a coach, who believed in him, to explode into the real deal.

By the time he came back home, Mhofu was convinced the Warriors had found a long-term replacement, for Willard Katsande, with the veteran coach boldly predicting Munetsi was going to end up in Europe.

A year later, as per Mhofu’s bold prediction, on June 11, 2019, Munetsi sealed a four-year deal at French Ligue 1 side, Stade Reims.

That, just two years earlier, he had been told by Ertugral he wasn’t even good enough to play for Pirates, was an indictment on the poor judgment of the Turkish gaffer.

Munetsi versus Messi, what a great sight for us

Now that he had the big stage, which he had always been crying for, at a club where he was loved and playing for a coach, who believed in him, Munetsi started showing his true colours.

And, just three months after signing for Stade de Reims, the player Ertugral felt wasn’t good enough to play for him at Pirates, produced a midfield masterclass, which crippled Paris Saint-Germain’s US$534m machine, led by Neymar.

In just one-and-a-half hours, of a dominant individual performance, at the Parc des Princes, in Paris, in September 2019, Munetsi sent his transfer value soaring past the US$30m mark.

For a man, who had been signed from Pirates for US$500 000, just three months earlier, this was as good as it gets, in terms of an immediate good return on investment.

What made his performance even special was that this was his first start for Stade Reims and, given it came against the PSG All-Star team, a lot of other players would have wilted, under pressure.

But, the fearless Munetsi grabbed the initiative, accepted the challenge and took on the opposition, with a blockbuster man-of-the-match show, in that match.

“That was a US$30m-player performance,’’ an agent remarked. “This boy has just changed his story in one game and I can tell you he has thrust himself under a lot of pressure going forward.

“A number of the traditional giants in the game will be analysing his performance on Wednesday and they will be sending people to keep a close look on him in every game he plays from now onwards.

“His imposing frame, which is a reminder of Yaya Toure at his peak, is just what the top coaches want in their teams, his movement with the ball is impressive and he plays without fear, it was very difficult, at times, to believe he was making his first start and playing against PSG.

“If Idrissa Gueye (the Senegalese defensive midfielder) cost PSG £30m (about US$37m) to get him from Everton, and he is 30 years old, I can tell you that — because of the relative youthfulness of Marshall — what we saw was a US$30m player and that’s just a starting value.’’

And, on Sunday night, Munetsi was handed the ultimate challenge, in his career, so far, and — not the first time — it came against the heavyweights from Paris.

It says a lot about the galacticos assembled by PSG, who now have a market value of US$1.9 billion, that Messi’s introduction was for another superstar, Neymar, for the last 24 minutes, of the game.

It’s like you have been in a heavyweight boxing showdown with Mike Tyson and, somehow, you have survived eight bruising rounds, against one of the most ferocious punchers this brutal sport has ever seen.

And, they withdraw Iron Mike and send in Muhammad Ali, to take you on, to complete the final four, of the 12 rounds.

Ali called himself “The Greatest’’ and, when it comes to football, there are many who are convinced the greatest of all-time is Messi.

In that presence of football royalty, how was Munetsi, who had spent the last 66 minutes chasing the likes of Neymar and Mbappe, going to fare?

But, once again, the Zimbabwe international showed how much he has come of age, in terms of his development as a player, with a good show against the Argentine superstar.

He never showed any signs of inferiority, harassing the superstar and, when it was necessary, bullying him with some rough tactics.

For him, this was just another opportunity to show he belonged to this stage, he wasn’t there by default and there is no better way to do that than a solid performance, against the world’s best player.

For us, as Zimbabwean football fans, watching one of our own, going toe-to-toe with Messi, and giving a good account of himself, felt really good.

Earlier that day, we had welcomed Joe Mugabe’s body home, for burial.

And, a few hours later, we were now watching the latest fine footballer from Mabvuku’s productive football nursery, taking on the world’s best, and coming out with flying colours, from their contest.

It’s a fine Zimbabwean story, a boy who grew up in Mabvuku going toe-to-toe against a superman like Messi.

And in those 24 minutes, Munetsi inspired a generation of millions of local boys who dream of one day scaling such heights.

It couldn’t have come from a fine gentleman who already pays school fees for scores of underprivileged kids from his Mabvuku community.

To God Be The Glory!

Peace to the GEPA Chief, the Big Fish, George Norton, Daily Service, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and all the Chakariboys in the struggle.

Come on United!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Ronaldoooooooooooooooooo! The Herald