“The intense passion to turn out for Highlanders and Dynamos pushed me to give my all in the field of play and that dream was fulfilled,” says Chris Mhlanga.
The rivalry for supremacy between the two giants in the Zimbabwean Premier Soccer League was also the push factor for him.
“That feeling to be regarded as one of the history makers, a good striker in the country and self-actualisation all rolled into one pushed me to realise my dream,” he says.
71-year-old Mhlanga was born in Gwanda at Entebeni area under Chief Mzimunye Masuku, Matabeleland South province. He had to relocate to Kadoma where his father ran a photographic studio and a hair salon. For his primary education he attended Mupamombe. He cut his football teeth at the school. His sublime skills made him to be drafted in Kadoma Select in 1961.
“My footballing skills spoke for me and the coaches for Kadoma Select noticed me. They drafted me into Kadoma Select when I was just 15 years old and I was the youngest player in that group,” he remembers.
The players that stood out in that side were Stephen Chimedza and Simon Machaya. In 1965 he left Kadoma and joined Eastlands FC in Bulawayo, while he was at the side he was selected to play for Red Army. He did not stay long, he then left for Harare and joined Nimfa and helped it to be promoted to the PSL.
But Nimfa failed to meet the requirements of Rhodesia National Football League due to that Arcadia which was on the second spot was promoted. He packed his bags and joined Rufaro Rovers.
“I was lucky because the coach knew my capabilities while I was turning out for Kadoma Select,” he says.
He was drafted into the reserve side and he did not disappoint.
“I played in the reserve side against St-Pauls. In that match I scored four goals and that helped me to be selected into the first team, from there on I commanded a regular place and proved my worth by scoring goals,” he remembers.
Due to his scoring prowess he earned the nickname “Zvidovi wezvi daudau wemandoro kwati”. His scoring skills cried out loud drawing attention of all and sundry and as such he was noticed by the Rhodesia National Football coaches. That squad had the household names like Peter Nyama, George Shaya, Shepherd Murape and Rob Jordan and James Chibaya. In 1968 he was drafted into the then national team. However, he suffered a knee injury and that forced him to be dropped from the squad. While he was turning out for the side Rio Tinto lured him with a job and he accepted the offer.
“The Rio Tinto management enticed me with a job and good perks and knowing fully that the league was not paying at the time I grabbed the offer. I became a welfare officer,” he says.
He spent six months at the club and when he wanted to leave his imminent departure became a hot topic in all corners of the town. He said they could not accept to let their football darling go because fond memories of him scoring 4-1 against BSAP Thomlison were still fresh in the minds.
At Dynamos he was still Chris, dependable and a striker who regularly scored. At DeMbare he played along the class of Shaya, Clever Hunda, David Madondo, Simon Sachiti and Charles Gwatidzo. For his undoubted performances he was capped and that was the highlight of his illustrious career.
“I scored on my debut when we beat Malawi 3-1 at Rufaro Stadium. In that squad I played alongside Philemon Tigere, Steward Knowells, James Nxumalo, Shephered Murape, James Chibaya, Topsy Robertson, Gibson Homela and Rob Jordan among those I can still remember in January of 1969,” he recalls.
While he was at the DeMbare his star power continued to shine. He helped the side in landing the Albar Trophy in 1970. In 1971 he retraced his footsteps to Bulawayo and turned out for Eastlands. He explains why he had to leave DeMbare.
“When I was at DeMbare for unexplained reasons I was relegated into the reserve side. Highlanders scouts Alfred Zwambila and Joseph Masuku a former broadcaster and the then chairman of the club Mtshena Sidile watched me playing in the Dynamos reserve side and I scored all the goals. After the match they sweet-talked me to join Highlanders. Due to frustration I had to accept to the offer,” he recalls.
His arrived at Highlanders when the side was campaigning for promotion into elite League. Why was the side at that position?
He says Highlanders had played lower division football from 1969 when they left Bafa and they had insufficient resources when they were promoted to the elite league at the end of 1970.
Chris says: “Their preparations were not enough and as such their performance left a lot to be desired as they managed only seven points for the entire season. We got a confidence booster at the last match of the season after we clobbered Callies 4-1. I scored one goal in that match.”
The players who made up that squad were Lawrence Phiri, John Vella, Edward Dzowa, Nehemiah Dube, Ananias Dube, Andrew Jelele, Billy Sibanda, Tennyson Mloyi and Tommy Masuku. Due to exposure and experience he attained while he turned out for the National team and Dynamos, he was recommended to be a player-coach.
“I had done some coaching courses in Harare and that made me to have a competitive edge over other players,” he says.
The side bounced back to top division as the players had gained experience and they were a steady side that reached semi-finals of the Castle Cup. His stay at Highlanders was met with differences. He says believed in the future while the executive wanted immediate results.
“I believed in the junior policy that is grooming young players. I believed they could be continuity in the club and as such I insisted in my decision but my idea was met with résistance,” he says.
Mhlanga says Highlanders’ backroom staff made their intentions clear that they wanted Tymon Mabaleka from Eastlands and that came as a relief for him as a swap deal was struck and he moved to Eastlands.
The deal was to be good news for him.
“I enjoyed every moment at the side. We won last 16 matches of the season. Highlanders boosted our squad as they loaned 11 players who included Boet Van Ays, Itai Chieza, Isaac Mafaro and Cavin Dberley,” he said.
A look at the Chronicle of 13 September 1973 shows that he led the charts as he scored 18 goals from 16 matches. He was selected to captain Matabeleland Select side in 1972.The notable players that he played alongside were Alick Mwanza, Francis Ngara, Patrick Kushure, Nelson Mapara, Amos Rendo and Kevin Sheridan. He left Eastlands and joined Bulawayo Wanderers. He played alongside Majuta Mpofu and Roney Maseko.
He believes in the leadership of Zimbabwe Football Association President Philip Chiyangwa.
“He is man who lives up to his words. I believe if the junior policy of scouting for grassroots talent in the provinces would bear fruits in the long-run. The country would have a formidable national team that would raise the country’s flag high in regional and International competitions,” he says.
Commenting on the epic battle that will pit the Zimbabwe’s two football giants Highlanders and Dynamos, he said: “I’m torn apart. I can’t say which team would win but a better team on the day will carry the day.”
He said the match officials for the titanic battle should be fair and not favour any side and guard against spoiling the beauty of the Zimbabwean football. He is married to Lucy Ndlovu. They have four children namely Watson, Getrude, Anorld and Martin.