ON the stage of the packed McDonald Hall in Mzilikazi on Thursday, Rahman Gumbo sat on my left side, his body shaking with grief, his soul tormented by pain and, now and again, I could hear him choking as he wept, overwhelmed by an occasion that made scores of old men cry.

The previous night he had driven more than 600km from his base in Gaborone, alone in his Jeep, his thoughts consumed by the tragedy that had struck back home, the loss of someone who was more than a brother.

Just a few metres in front of us, Willard Mashinkila-Khumalo lay lifeless in his coffin, that infectious smile never to charm us again, those bright eyes never to open again, that handsome face never to light up our lives again, and reality was hitting us hard that Nduna was gone for good.

And, as an emotional tsunami exploded all over Rahman’s body, sending it into occasional jerks, the tears came down, and when I heard him choke as he wept, I could not help it but cry too, and we were not the only old men who were crying.

Neither were we the only ones who had travelled long distances to be there when the world finally said goodbye to Nduna. Madinda Ndlovu had also made the trip from Botswana, Moses Chunga had led scores of former football stars and coaches from the capital, Norman Mapeza had driven from his base in Zvishavane, all of us united by the need to give our Nduna a send-off that he deserved.

Even though Lovemore Majaivana, who is also from the same area that Nduna hailed from, where we now gathered for his funeral service, was not there to sing for us, for his departed homeboy, his music — including a timeless classic dedicated to Highlanders — kept thundering from the sound system.

A reminder of a time when this iconic football club ruled this country, a reminder of a time when its ranks were graced by men of substance like Mashinkila-Khumalo, superstars who rose from those very streets that we gathered that day, to propel their beloved team to the very top.

But, as the gathering on Thursday showed, Willard Mashinkila-Khumalo was much more than just a Highlanders legend, artistes of his quality are never made to be confined to just a club, to be loved by just a single constituency, to be embraced by just a single city.

He was the Zimbabwe football legend that Bosso gave to us as a present, a man so good in his game that it was difficult, if not impossible, not to appreciate the package that made him stand out in those midfield battles, talent so rich that it broke the artificial barriers that divide clubs into little, and at times violent kingdoms whose hostility to their rivals is very pronounced.

He was one of those rare footballers that everyone loved, irrespective of club affiliation, the man whose nickname rolled easily from the tongues of fans of rival clubs, the guy who was blessed with the charm that made it impossible for him to be hated, even when his magic was inflicting considerable pain on the hearts of supporters of opposing teams.

Peter Ndlovu, the King who took us to the Promised Land of the Nations Cup finals twice, was a skipper who was liked throughout the country by a nation that felt privileged that such a genius was one of us, born on this side of the Zambezi and Limpopo and not on the other side, and that he made us proud with his magic on the field, wearing the colours of our country, only enhanced his popularity.

Agent Sawu, during a golden spell as the spearhead of the Dream Team attack when he scored priceless goals for our nation, including a last-gasp winner against Cameroon that will never be forgotten, was also a footballer who was liked throughout a country that appreciated the efforts that he put into his job, on our behalf every time he wore our golden shirt.

But in terms of simply being loved for being the footballer he was, Mashinkila-Khumalo was in his own world, had no competition, and it’s difficult to understand why, maybe it’s just the gift that the Lord gave him and, since it came from the heavens, no-one could take it away from him.

And, as we sat in that hall in Mzilikazi, it became apparent — even to his family who live in Zambia — that the ultimate people’s footballer, the man whose appeal was national rather than provincial, had passed on and what used to be their Willard when he was a kid growing up in that suburb, had been transformed by his football talent to become our Willard, our Nduna, our sporting icon.

That is why he didn’t walk alone in his final journey to his resting place, and his funeral — on that final day — turned into a celebration of his life, with Majaivana’s music playing the soundtrack to the events on the day, and Mzilikazi said goodbye to a giant of a son, Highlanders said goodbye to a giant of a player and Zimbabwe said goodbye to a giant of a football genius.

And, that is why even those in Harare, who were unable to travel to Bulawayo for one reason or another, decided to hold a service which attracted legends like George Shaya and Freddie Mkwesha at Raylton to remember the life and times of a man who touched us all.

WHAT FANS SAID ABOUT MASHINKILA-KHUMALO

Reginald Ruwende

“I recall vividly Willard Mashinkila-Khumalo equalising for Bosso in the 1991 Castle Cup final. With a low curling shot from range, Mawii beat the then Dynamos goalie Peter Fanwell to make it 1-1, silencing the DeMbare contingent, which included myself, in the National Sports Stadium packed to capacity. Whenever Mashinkila, a Trojan horse in the middle of the park was in possession, you would be deafened by reverberating roars from fans chanting ‘Hwiii! Hwiii! Hwi hwiiii! Such adulation speaks of how this thoroughbred linkman illuminated the local soccer scene, hence why for years Mahwii featured regularly on the Soccer Stars of the Year calendar in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. By merit, Mashinkila became a vital cog in the national team machine and later immensely contributed to the development of local football during his tenure as Highlanders and Lancashire Steel coach. Mahwii, we remember thee, RIP dear brother.”

Mukwashi Nicky Gee

“Oh thou Mashinkila, heaven reward thee, it was a blessing playing and associating with thee, worlds are now apart but memories are nay. Your artistry in the field of play, partnered again by him, the great Shambo,(and) Mercedes, the Warriors were a marvel to watch. Words and tears fall but very short. Rest thou in peace, I pray the lord permits.”

Amos Zingwe Simba

“Willard Mashinkila Nduna Khumalo was laid to rest today at Lady Stanley Cemetery. What a legend, many paid tribute to the man who gave all to football as a player, coach and admin. A man who could make everyone smile, a man who knew no tribal divide. I was among 100 or so who paid tribute to the legend at Raylton Sports Club in Harare. It was indeed an emotional event, I nearly dropped some tears when MaGeee’s Inyoni was played and some took to the dance floor. Aloice Bunjira was emotional when he described how Nduna was among the guys who were sent by Fabisch to negotiate with his family for his release to join the Dream Team as he was still a schoolboy.

COLLIN MATIZA REMEMBERS A GENIUS WHO WAS JUST AWESOME

My colleague, Collin Matiza, told me this week that Mashinkila-Khumalo was different not because he was a very, very good footballer but because he was a humble and nice man who never believed that his talent made him any more special than the people who supported him from the stands or those who were not as talented as he was.

Back in the days, Matiza was a regular patron at Raylton Sports Club, the home of CAPS United, where you used to see the likes of Joel Shambo, another football genius of our time, hang out and Kodza and Jubilee became very close friends.

Every Sunday, after the weekend games had ended, you would bet your last dollar that if you enter Raylton, on the left side of the bar close to the main door, you would see Kodza and Jubilee and their mates having a drink or two and talking about the events of that weekend.

Matiza remembers that, as Mashinkila-Khumalo’s profile began to grow, in the ‘80s, and people started talking about this bouncing midfield magician who was playing for Highlanders, comparisons between him and Jubilee, became inevitable.

Some felt that Mashinkila was the better player, or was going to be the better player, while others — and that included the majority of the folks at Raylton — felt that Shambo was streets ahead, a far better player.

Interestingly, said Matiza, what blew him away was that when Mashinkila came to town, he wasn’t interested in the conversation of who was the better player, Shambo or himself, and instead decided to cultivate a very close relationship with the man the CAPS United fans called ‘The Headmaster”.

“You would think that footballers, because of their ego, would try and argue that, come on, I am the better player or I am going to be the better player, but now Willard, and even though he knew that this debate was raging on, he decided to be Joe’s best friend,” said Matiza.

“They became very close that, when Highlanders came to Harare, Willard would stay behind and sleep at Joe’s place and when CAPS United went to Bulawayo, Joe would return the favour.

“Willard wasn’t concerned about proving that he was the better player or what, he simply saw himself as a footballer, a Zimbabwean who needed to have as many friends as possible, and in a game that is full of people with a lot of egos, he struck me as one of the rare kinds of footballers.”

Maybe, that is why he was so popular and so loved.

In a domestic game that regularly suffers from conflict, with meaningless tribal battles being fought now and again, Mashinkila-Khumalo was the face of unity, a man who believed that we are Zimbabweans and that is all that matters.

And, during the Dream Team era, under Reinhard Fabisch, he really shone brightly in the colours of a nation that he loved so much and, in one unforgettable game, overshadowed the Khumalo of South Africa in a midfield duel that was key to us winning that game convincingly when we scored four goals.

There have been better players than Willard, in this country, no doubt about that, and there will, possibly, be better players than Willard, which Mzilikazi or other parts of this great nation will present us as a present, but I doubt if there will be one so wholly loved by this nation.

He played his game with a smile that never faded from his face and, as we said goodbye to him on Thursday, it was clear that we had lost an icon.

No wonder Rahman choked in his tears.

To God Be The Glory!

Come On United!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Chicharitoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

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