THE shadow of the man whom many consider to be the finest footballer to emerge in this country, legendary Warriors forward Peter Ndlovu, will be looming large when another crop of Zimbabwean schoolboys plunges into action on the 30th anniversary of the Copa Coca-Cola tournament in a few weeks time.
Now fondly known as King Peter, the Flying Elephant is the greatest Warrior of all-time, having captained this country to its first dance with the continent’s football heavyweights in the Nations Cup finals in Tunisia in 2004, before another dance in Egypt two years later.
Fittingly, Ndlovu also scored Zimbabwe’s first goal at the AFCON finals in a 1-2 defeat against continental powerhouse Egypt.
Ndlovu was part of the pioneer group of schoolboys to take part in the inaugural edition of the Copa Coca-Cola tournament in 1989, whose finals were held at Gifford High School in Bulawayo.
Then only 16, he led his school to success in the tournament after they defeated Manunure in the final and used that tournament to announce his arrival on the big stage given that, a few months down the line, he was soon playing for Highlanders.
Ndlovu’s progress kept gathering momentum, showing he was a very special player, and in his first full season with Bosso, he was voted the country’s Soccer Star of the Year, and award he shared with CAPS United hitman George “Tyson’’ Nechironga.
However, the following season, no one could touch Ndlovu and even though he didn’t play the entire season, with his talents having seen him being transferred to English side Coventry City, he still had done enough to win the Soccer Star of the Year award for the second year running.
That saw him join the illustrious company of George Shaya as the only two players to have won the award twice in a row and there are many who believe that had Ndlovu spent his entire career at home, he would have won the prize more than eight times.
Now the team manager of Mamelodi Sundowns in South Africa, Ndlovu remains passionate about the development of young footballers in this country.
His Mzilikazi High School team, in 1989, also featured a man who would later impress for the Warriors, midfielder Benjamin Nkonjera, who transformed himself into a key member of Reinahrd Fabisch’s Dream Team that came within just winning one game from qualifying for the 1994 World Cup finals.
Nkonjera, who later became Ndlovu’s best friend, also scored in that inaugural final in 1989.
Sadly, he died young, but left such an enduring impact on Ndlovu that the former Warriors skipper named one of his sons Benjamin in honour of his old friend.
The late Fabisch’s wife Chawada, the daughter of a Mutoko businessman, now lives with her son Jonah in Germany and revealed to The Herald that Nkonjera was her husband’s favourite player.
“What I remember the most of the Dream Team in the early nineties is that they seemed to me to have been a cult of some sort that almost everyone wanted to be a part of,” she said.
“And, of course, the leader of this group was a very charismatic man by the name of Reinhard Fabisch who, together with his 22 disciples, had the ability to gather over 50 000 people on a weekend into a stadium and entertain them for 90 minutes.
“Reinhard always told me that it was the best combination of players he ever had as a coach, so that his job was that much easier to do because his task was simply to play a strategic system with highly motivated and talented players.
“And it worked, time and time again.
“Over 11 matches without a single defeat! Although he was proud and fond of all his players, the one he loved most was Benjamin Nkonjera, both as a footballer and a person.
“When he first saw him as a young player he knew straight away he was a great talent and wanted him on his side.”
In a few weeks’ time, organisers of the Copa Coca-Cola, a revolutionary schools’ football tournament introduced in this country, which is boosting the development of the game around the globe, will launch the 30th edition of a tourney which has provided a platform for players like the legendary King Peter to announce their arrival on the big stage.
And, for the army of players who are going to plunge into battles this year, given the special nature of this edition, it’s clear that the shadow of King Peter will be looming large over them.
“Which is good, because it provides the tournament with a model figure which helps to inspire our boys in school right now that they can also possibly reach those heights touched by Peter one day,’’ said one of the coaches involved in the project.
“If we can have three or four who can play at half the pace and half as good as what Peter did in his career then we will be celebrating having a very good base of players for our future national teams.’’
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Copa Coca-Cola tournament, The Herald will be providing you with weekly reports about the journey of this great tourney and how it has impacted on football in this country, in particular, and around the world, in general.