The Sunday News
GOD blew his final match whistle on Ernest “Maphepha” Sibanda, one of his most successful footballers in Zimbabwe around 11am on Tuesday.
He succumbed to diabetes. As he ascended to the Garden of Eden Stadium, news of his death shocked the country, the waves of the tremor felt around the globe wherever there are pockets of Zimbabweans.
An innings of 63 years, 322 days was a great stand at the crease and in the process his countrymen saw him collect silverware as a player, manager and chairman of the most supported team in Zimbabwe.
As if that was not enough, he was manager when Zimbabwe won its third Cosafa Castle Cup in August of 2005 and a few months later qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations finals held in Egypt the following year.
Gathering the confidence to pen an obituary of a man of his stature was not an easy decision. My journey with Ernest Sibanda took off in August of 1978 when I first watched him in action — what a player. That Stone Age generation can testify, he was a terrific Number 7, who had he plied his trade in these days, he would be a regular in the senior national team and coming for duty from a professional league overseas as he had everything any coach would want from a player.
My Mkhwenyana Isaac Ncube took me to watch MaNeh (Ernest Sibanda’s original nickname) and Sibusiso (Patrick Changunda). He promised me that it was going to be a spectacle as the two players’ teams Contex and Pumula City Crackers played beautiful football.
Up to that day the best there was for me was George Shaya a man who most of us grew up calling ourselves after his name in dusty patches in our play fields. I had only watched Shaya once and on that afternoon, he roasted Wankie FC defenders like a cob of mealies. The other was Wankie’s tear away winger David Khumalo.
But that afternoon in a match that ended if my memory serves me right 3-3, Sibanda was on fire. I was smitten and converted to be his fan and at half time we jumped onto the field as youngsters with plastic balls kids from around White City had brought.
We were all trying to emulate Sibanda’s tricks. His ball control, body posture and one prominent feature of the man on the pitch. While some players blew their cheeks on the field, he had a trade mark drinking fish open mouth while with the ball and confidence that blew his opponents away. His display was superb.
In the main match it was the Tymon Mabaleka and Alfred Ngedla Phiri Show. To me Ernest was at that level and I asked Mkhwenyana why he was not playing at that level and was advised that Mabaleka and Phiri were playing for a South Zone Select while MaNeh was playing a Division Two League match.
He appeared to match the two stalwarts. In life where meritocracy exists, deserving candidates rise. A year later Highlanders FC who had chosen to leave the comforts of the Rhodesia National Football League to play in the South Zone Soccer League in 1977, were invited back to the elite division. It was one played on zonal basis.
Highlanders went searching for talent to bolster the team and in the process identified Sibanda among a number of other stars Fanuel Ncube and Titus Majola, MaNeh’s teammate at Contex. Bosso were desperate to win over fans and return to being Bulawayo’s Kings of Football, a title they had relinquished to Zimbabwe Saints in 1976 in the Chibuku Trophy final which they lost 4-0 to their neighbours who would in 1977 capture the league and cup double.
A right winger who could play the old Number 8 and 10 roles, he got the nickname Maphepha for his slim built and way he used to slice through defences. He would be part of the Highlanders team that won the Chibuku Trophy and the Heroes Cup in 1980. In only his second season with the club he played in three cup finals, the third being the Rothmans Shield that the club was humiliated by a fired-up Caps United in two legs with Bosso conceding four goals in each of the matches.
With players like Doughty Sithole, Phineas Mabaleka, Majuta Mpofu, aging Josiah Nxumalo, Titus Majola, Tymon Mabaleka and goalscoring machine Mark Watson, Maphepha in the mix, fans had the real deal at their disposal.
Bosso played entertaining football with action engineered on the wings and midfield where Maphepha played with so much ability, confidence and vision winning himself admirers around the country.
With Shaya retired, another favourite, Sithole gone to the United States on a scholarship, I was left with three idols Khumalo, Sibanda and Robert Godoka of Rio Tinto. I remember getting a slap from my dad for cutting a copy of Chronicle before he could read it because it had Maphepha called up to the national team. My crime was the old man was yet to read the newspaper that he had sent me to town to buy.
Sibanda made his debut for the Warriors at 24 in the 1981 Cecafa Cup getting two caps against Sudan and Zambia as he fortunes on the field continued to soar. Another brilliant display in 1982 had Caps Holdings’ Mr Goodchild in the news saying they were keen on the Bosso star. With a job offer in the capital, Sibanda could not resist the temptation of joining the most entertaining and star laden side in Zimbabwe, Caps United.
No player could turn down the offer to team up with Shaky Tauro, Joel Shambo, Stix M’tizwa, Stanley Ndunduma, Size Torindo, Charles Sibanda, Stephen Chisango and Duncan Elson.
Maphepha moved to the capital for the 1983 and 1984 seasons where he won the FA Cup and rights to play in Africa.
His departure especially on a season where with Madinda Ndlovu they were expected to carry the load for Amahlolanyama following the departure of Tymon Mabaleka, Josiah Nxumalo, Majuta Mpofu, Lawrence Phiri, Willie Luphahla and Billy Sibanda all veterans who had in previous years brought about stability and experience to the side, left Bosso gasping for breath.
He returned to the club in 1985 helping Bosso qualify for the Chibuku Trophy final. Down 3-0 against Ziscosteel, Maphepha played probably his best game for the club leading the revival to a 4-3 win. That afternoon at Luveve Stadium, he had fans eating out of their palms with a five-star performance that revived memories of the rising star he was when he played for Bosso in 1980 and 1981, he showed fans that Harare had not stolen anything away from his bag of tricks.
Work commitments hindered him from being very active in the stellar 1986 season for Bosso and that marked the end of his chapter as a player. Had he stayed at Bosso and maintained his great form, he would have shouldered the burden with another club legend Madinda Ndlovu.
I have no doubt the gong for the Bosso Player of the Decade would have be between him, Douglas Mloyi and Ndlovu.
Sibanda would with Chris Mhlanga be the foundations of Mpopoma social football club, Mthala. Realising the gulf left by teams like Red Seal, Maphepha, a former Leeds United junior who played for Rahman Gumbo’s father’s Njube United before moving to Contex, founded a junior project around 1990 that would rise to dominance with some of its players making headlines in national papers and outside the country.
Mthala juniors produced former Highlanders, Moroka Swallows and Warriors’ Bekithemba Ndlovu, United States based Malvern Ntini, former Railstars forward Pare Zivira, Highlanders’ Thamsanqa Dube and were the backbone of Phinda Mzala an exciting Division One project owned by Charles Mhlauri.
He was an advisor as at one time the club had Mephias Webb, Lindani “Maradona” Kurairwa, Richard Choruma, Gift Lunga (Jnr), Ntini, Zivira and Witness Gumbo as goalkeeper. Sibanda quit formal employment to start a business that he still co-owned to his death with his partner of almost 30 years, Farari Chirongoma.
In the mid-1990s with Lyton Majada called to duty in the national junior league, Bulawayo still hungry to retain the top slot in junior development, needed a new face with energy. They turned to Maphepha and companies like GC Tyres and Induna Foods came on board.
A socialite who was well loved by his Bulawayo community and business circles, Maphepha was also voted chairman of the Bulawayo Social Soccer League fitting into shoes previously worn by founding fathers Chris Somo and Chris Mhlanga.
Both leagues benefited from his charismatic appeal and sponsorships flowed their direction. A good number of players rose from the juniors’ ranks during his time to dominate at AmaZulu, Highlanders, Railstars and Zimbabwe Saints. By then I knew a man I had idolised at first name basis.
But his break back into elite football would come in the build up to the 1998/99 championship winning season.
Bosso needed to win silverware and had last won the BP League Cup in 1994. All was not well at Bosso with finances at their worst, players owed with Zambian international Kelvin Kaindu having to be rescued by Fifa in owed salaries.
A new executive which was brutal with the truth came on board headed by Roger Muhlwa. The message to disgruntled players was go to the field play well and fill stadia and you will earn your salaries. Those not happy were told to pack. Sibanda fitted the bill building the trust and confidence of the players.
That worked wonders and the end result was that there was the necessary chemistry for results to come, board, executive, management, supporters and anything Bulawayo just came to the party and made it possible for an unprecedented four titles on the trot between 1998 and 2002.
Prior to that only Dynamos and Bulawayo Rovers had won back to back league titles. Thus, he entered history books as the most successful Highlanders manager, eclipsing achievements by two other greats Silas Ndlovu and Lawrence Phiri.
I travelled with Sibanda to Egypt, Kenya, Seychelles, Mauritius, Reunion, South Africa and Zambia and as always found him a team player for the team and travelling party which included at times supporters and journalists. His sense of humour, love for Bulawayo and the game made us feel at home away as at times we would be subjected to ill-treatment.
He was a listener who would take advice to benefit all during tough times coming in as a brotherly figure to his compatriots and father to the players. In 2006 Maphepha’s popularity saw him nominated in absentia as Bosso chairman. He ascended to the post and led Bosso to the championship, writing his own name in bold in the annals of history — five league championships and a great number of players going for greener pastures abroad among them Zenzo Moyo, only the second Zimbabwean player to play in Greece, Noel Kaseke now coaching in the Arab Emirates, Bekithemba Ndlovu, Honour Gombami and Vusa Nyoni.
Maphepha’s success saw Zifa recognising his worth to the game. In 2005 he was appointed Warriors manager.
The Midas touch he had worked wonders for Zimbabwe. The Warriors won the Cosafa Castle Cup.
Zimbabwe made it to the Afcon finals the next year and with that he had cemented his place not only at Highlanders but Zimbabwe as a whole. Sibanda had passion for the game and loved people in general.
In a volatile minefield Zimbabwe football is, people created factions but he belonged to none instead preferring unity which he felt was good for football and his club Highlanders. Rest in Power, MaNeh, you ran your marathon leg with distinction.