By Ponga Liwewe

In 1985, Mufulira Wanderers coach Samuel ‘Zoom’ Ndlovu noticed a shy, quiet boy who, when he stepped onto the pitch, immediately changed his demeanour and played with poise and balance beyond his years. He had the ability to place the ball where he wanted and to find players with passes no one else seemed to see or would even consider executing. He threw him into the deep end without hesitation and thus began the career of Charles Musonda, undoubtedly Zambia’s most celebrated central midfielder ever.

At the age of fifteen Musonda was starting in the Mufulira. Wanderers line up and dominating players twice his age. He became part of a midfield that included the effervescent Frederick Kashimoto and together, they dominated the midfield against countless opponents in the domestic league. The fluid, passing game favoured by Zoom Ndlovu had, in Musonda, a player whose vision and creativity was unmatched.

The following season, 1986, at sixteen, such was his domination in the midfield that he was called up to the Zambia national team at the Africa Cup of Nations and started in the first team line up against Cameroon. In a fascinating end-to-end contest, with Cameroon seeking vengeance for their world cup elimination at Zambia’s hand a year earlier the best match of the tournament as played out.

The young Zambian side matched their opponents in the battle of wits, with the young Musonda orchestrating Zambian attacks through his intricate ball distribution. Cameroon sensing the tide turning against them, cynically sought to neutralise Musonda. Their chance came when in a fifty-fifty race for possession, Rger Milla, getting to the ball first, blasted it straight into Musonda’s midriff, seriously injuring the precocious teenager. He was out for the rest of the tournament and his absence proved to be detrimental to Zambia’s prospects of making the semi-final. Zambia bowed out of the tournament and went home early but lessons had been learned by the young, promising team who were making their debut in the tournament.

At the beginning of the 1986 European season, Musonda was signed by the Belgian side Cercle Brugge where he joined his former Mufulira Wanderers team mate, Kalusha Bwalya. Musonda was spotted when Brugge made a tour of Zambia, playing three friendly matches in Kitwe, Mufulira and Lusaka, in which Musonda’s star quality shone through. Together they took the Belgian side to unprecedented heights and this period also saw the moves of Stone Nyirenda and Lucky Msiska into Belgian football. But for a failed medical, Wisdom Chansa would have joined them too. Such was the allure of Zambian players to Belgian clubs during this era.

With Zambia thrown out of the qualifying series for the 1988 Africa Cup of Nations for withdrawing from hosting the tournament, the focus shifted to the qualifying matches for the Olympic Games in Seoul. Zambia faced an experienced Ghanaian side in Lusaka and it was in this match that Musonda showed that, even at the youthful age of eighteen, he had become a complete player. He ran the show in midfield, engineering Zambia’s attacks from deep. The Zambian attack of Kalusha Bwalya and Wisdom Chansa thrived on the constant supply and took the Ghanaian defence apart. The Ghanaian team, including Tony Yeboah, current coach Kwesi Appiah, and the explosive Opoku Nti had no answer.

Goals from Kalusha Bwalya and Wisdom Chansa separated the two teams as Zambia went on to win 2-0. The second, supplied by Musonda, stood out for its sheer quality. Taking the ball in the air, Musonda ran through the Ghanaian midfield at full flight keeping it in the air with an unbelievable array of head, chest and knee controls before laying off to an unmarked Chansa to score. It was this cushion that saw Zambia qualify despite a 1-0 loss in the second leg.

That same year Musonda was transferred from Cercle Brugge to the leading Belgian side, Anderlect, and it was here that their celebrated coach George Leekens celebrated his acquisition declaring: ‘he is the player we have been looking for. Someone who can create chances for others to score.’ At Anderlecht Musonda played in an even deeper role, sitting in front of the back four and only foraging into the opposing box when the build-up play allowed. It was at this stage of his career that he began to suffer injury problems. Medical staff found that one leg was slightly shorter than the other, and he played with a specially-adapted pair of boots.

In Seoul at the Olympic Games, Musonda flourished and was very prominent in the 4-0 destruction of Italy. He left the tournament with his reputation further enhanced. In the 1990, Anderlecht reached the final of the European Cup Winners Cup final and Musonda played a pivotal role in the team’s journey to the last two. Though they lost 2-0 to Sampdoria, Musonda caught the eye of Juventus and was courted. His injury problems flared up and scuppered the move. He was at the top of his football powers now, and Zambian football reaped full benefits of his talents, challenging for a place at the 1990 World Cup but poor away for thwarted the team’s qualification hopes.

Musonda missed the flight to Gabon that killed the entire national team, staff and aircrew due to injury but was present, having recovered when Zambia, fifteen minutes away from World Cup qualification, lost 1-0 to Morocco.

Thereafter injuries effectively stalled his career for close to three years. When he came back to play for Zambia in 1997 against South Africa in a world cup qualification match he was controversially left out of the team and Zambia went in to draw 0-0 at home. Musonda would never again wear a national team shirt and it was an ignominious end to his international career. He had always given his best when injury allowed him the opportunity to play.

He had spells in the USA before retiring and later returning to Anderlecht in a technical position. His three sons, all football players like him, currently play with varying degrees of success. Musonda recently had a spell as assistant coach with Congolese side TP Mazembe. He stands out as the greatest midfield player in Zambian football history and deservedly holds the status of Hero of Zambian football.


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