Of soccer players and nicknames

Ever since the National Football League (NFL) was launched in March 1962, Zambia has produced a vast array of talented soccer players. 

Each team in the old Division One – renamed the Premier League in 1982 – has developed players who have come to be known perhaps more by their nicknames than their real ones.

If ever there was a nickname that transcended all others, it had to be “Ucar”, the moniker given to the late goal king, Godfrey Chitalu. 

Because of his incomparable achievements in the early 1970’s, Chitalu was dubbed Ucar after American company Union Carbide, the maker of the trademark UCAR batteries.

It was after he scored 107 goals in all competitions in the 1972 season that Chitalu came to be widely associated with the durable and reliable batteries. 

Even in death, the mercurial Kitwe United, Kabwe Warriors and Zambia striker is still referred to as Ucar – rarely as Chitalu. He died as national soccer team coach in the 1993 Gabon air disaster.

Three other famous nicknames emerged at the Railways Ground – Chitapochimo, Soweto, and Teacher. At the height of his powers, Boniface Simutowe became a creative and crafty player who earned the sobriquet “Chitapochimo”. 

The word, loosely translated ‘produce something’, was very much in keeping with the character of Simutowe – a player so versatile he could play in defence, central midfield, either wing, and as an out-and-out attacker.

In 1969, aged just 20, Simutowe was a double winner of the Footballer of the Year and Sportsman of the Year awards. He was the youngest player to be named footballer of the year, until 19-year-old Johnson Bwalya broke that record in his debut season at Mufulira Wanderers in 1986.

And then there was Clement “Soweto” Banda, scorer of seven goals when Warriors pulverised Chipata’s Works United 26-0 in the first round of the 1980 Shell Challenge Cup (later renamed the BP Top Eight Cup) at the Railways Ground.

Another Gabon crash victim, Timothy Mwitwa, a mesmerising winger with a crab-like dribbling style that often left opponents tackling air, was affectionately known as “Teacher” by a sea of frenzied fans. The deceptively lazy-looking winger with a seemingly frail frame was a real terror for defenders. 

Former Mufulira Wanderers and Zambia master-dribbler Samuel Ndhlovu was a player that fans of all persuasion loved to call “Zoom”. Wherever Wanderers played locally, the lanky striker would attract a chorus of ‘Zoom! Zoom! Zoom!’ from a choir of enraptured fans as he sliced through the meanest of defences. 

Famously, Zoom was national team coach when a rampant Zambia ran riot at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, beating Italy 4-0 in its second group game, coaxing a passionate “We have conquered the world!” from an ecstatic Dennis Liwewe from the commentator’s booth.

Patrick “Whiskey” Nkole was the oldest of the Nkole brothers (Edward, Abraham and Godfrey being the other three). A hulking defender who loved his drink and hence the nickname, he was equally adept playing at right back and central defence.

Former Wanderers and Zambia goalkeeper Tolomeo Mwansa was another player whose nickname “Juva” reverberated from the terraces at Shinde Stadium.

And then there was the one they called “Castella”. His real name was Thomas Bwalya – another Wanderers’ legend who played with some verve. A dribbler of note, Castella’s most iconic moment was perhaps Wanderer’s 5-2 thumping of Ghana’s Accra Hearts of Oak in a 1976 club continental tie at Lusaka’s Independence Stadium. He scored two goals in the game. In the 1970 season, his 44 goals in all competitions earned him the fourth slot on the top goal scorers’ chart.

From Shinde Stadium still, another player came to be known as “Shombo”, which loosely means ‘one with great dependability’. And dependable indeed was Philemon Mulala. A revelation at the 1984 East and Central African Senior Challenge Cup which Zambia won for the first time, Mulala was voted best right winger, emerging as the tournament’s top scorer with four goals.

Former Football Association of Zambia president Kalusha Bwalya’s face is perhaps one of Zambia’s most recognised across the globe, owing to his exploits at the Olympics, Africa Cup of Nations, and in the Belgian, Dutch and Mexican leagues. 

When he debuted for Wanderers as a teenager, Kalusha played in the same team as his older brother, midfielder Benjamin whom fans nicknamed “Tigana” after French legend Jean Tigana, who formed a fluid midfield troika with the masterly Michel Platini and Alain Giresse at the 1982 and 1986 World Cup tournaments.

Rhokana United (now Nkana) has had six players whose nicknames rang from the stands. “Bomber”, Bernard Chanda’s nickname, echoed at all stadia where the afro-haired forward bombed forward. Chanda stands out as one of the finest strikers Zambia has produced.

First playing for Roan United, Chanda had a short stint with Wanderers before crossing over to Scrivener Stadium (now Nkana Stadium) at the start of the 1974 season. A centre forward of proven goal scoring prowess, he edged out Ucar on national coach Ante Buselic’s first-team sheet. There are those who argue that the Yugoslav could well have partnered the two in attack, but was uncomfortable with Chitalu’s fiery temperament and occasional bout of indiscipline. Indeed, Ucar was known for kicking out in retaliation after an opponent had fouled him.

Years later, two other Zambia players, Nkwazi’s Bright Mangambwa and Profund Warriors’ Patrick Banda, both midfielders for club and country, took on the nickname “Bomber”. Banda also perished in the Gabon crash.

Chamboli Secondary School produced for Nkana a steely midfield governor-general popularly known as “Tanker” owing to his immovability once in possession of the ball. His real name was Jericho Shinde, a star for the then Nkana Red Devils and a pillar of the national side at the 1986 Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt. Under the tutelage of Colonel Brightwell Banda, the team held World Cup bound Algeria to a scoreless stalemate and were narrowly pipped 3-2 by a Roger Milla inspired Cameroon in a match in which an audacious Kalusha penalty sent the feline Thomas Nkono in Cameroon’s goal scuttling in the wrong direction.

When Zambia played at the 1994 Nations Cup tournament after the Gabon crash, there was a midfielder called Kapambwe Mulenga who was included in the reconstituted side. The Nkana player had in the 1980s starred as a left back for club and country, evolving into midfield as his thirties kicked in. In his 1980s heyday, he was a nifty defender who could caress the ball with some finesse, his trademark curling crosses from the left by-line a memorable part of his game. However, he was prone to the occasional dirty play – a surreptitious kick to an opponent’s shin, a stealthy elbow to the midriff. It was these occasional passages of rough play that earned him the nickname “Gentile”, a name borrowed from Claudio Gentile, the robust defender who won the World Cup with Italy in 1982 in Spain and earned the epithet “terrorist” from a distraught Diego Maradona after he ruthlessly marked the Argentine legend out of the game by all manner of outlawed tactics.

Another player from Wusakile who was famously called by his nickname was Gibby Mbasela. Owing to a propensity for the mazy dribble, Nkana fans called him “Mupike”. Kenneth Malitoli, who, as many strikers do these days, evolved deeper into midfield as the years wore on, became famously known as “Bubble”, the origins of the nickname quite unclear. Before he was signed on by Tunisian club Esperance, credited for turning him into a ball distributing midfielder, Bubble lit up the local league as top scorer for several seasons in his original position as a central striker. He was in the national side that lost 2-1 to Nigeria in the final of the 1994 Africa Cup tournament in Tunis. From Nkana still, the striker Beston Chambeshi came to be known as “Quicksilver” for his fleet of feet.

The burly Collins Mbesuma, now in his thirties but still the spearhead of a currently stuttering Chipolopolo side, earned the nickname “Ntomfontomfo” from smitten Kaizer Chiefs’ fans when one barnstorming season in South Africa’s Premier Soccer League saw him score a record 35 goals. His father, Francis Kajiya, played for army side Green Buffaloes and was nicknamed “Kempes” after the long-haired, left-footed Argentine striker Mario Kempes, top scorer at the 1978 World Cup with six goals.

At the Africa Cup in 1982 in Libya, Power Dynamos’ Peter Kaunda was voted the tournament’s best left winger, scoring a memorable goal in the 3-0 win against Nigeria. Kaumba picked up the nickname “Africa” for his exploits at the Libya-held tournament but was called “Abaleya” by local fans. 

Kaumba formed a telepathic understanding with teammate Alex “Computer” Chola, an accomplished dribbler and fine passer of the ball, and in this writer’s reckoning second only to Charles Musonda in the pantheon of Zambia’s visionary midfield maestros. The duo, described as “world class players” by national team coach Wieslaw Grabowski, was signed by Ivorian side Africa Sport after a prolific season for Dynamos saw Kaumba as top scorer in the league with 36 goals and Chola his runner-up with 30.

Power Dynamos winger Lucky Msiska was among the first three Zambian players to play in the Belgian league in the 1980s (the other two were Kalusha and Stone Nyirenda). Owing to a love of the elaborate step-over, Msiska was nicknamed “Muchofe” by local fans. 

City of Lusaka’s Peter M’hango, a former Libala Secondary Schoolboy international and part of Ante Buselic’s national side that lost to Zaire (now DRC) in the 1974 Africa Nations Cup final earned the nickname “King”. 

All told, Zambia’s soccer history brims with players who earned nicknames. Among them is James “Ringo” Phiri, the late Zanaco and national team goalkeeper, who starred in the Chipolopolo team that lost 2-1 to Nigeria in 1994 in Tunis in the Africa Cup final. Others include Barbed Wire (Dickson Makwaza), Chairman (Moses Simwala), Kalulu (Lewis Shambulo), Ouma (John Zulu), Socrates (Linos Makwaza, Dickson Makwaza’s son), Bremner (Zifa Nkhoma), Butcher (John Mwanza), Gazza (Chris Tembo), Sharp (Nelson Sakala), Bubble Brown (Edward Kangwa), Bo Jungle (Robertson Zulu), Sharp Razor (Maybin Mg’aiwa), Shom-Shom (Freddie Mwila Jr), Malaza (Kelvin Mutale, another Gabon crash victim), Starwars (Stafford Kayame) and Jet Lee (Kabamba Kalande).

 

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