None of the current Flames players would have made it into my team

Asked what he thought of the current Malawi national football team, fondly known as ‘The Flames’, he gave a damning opinion of it.

“None of the players [in the current squad] would have made it into my team,” he said.

I had just left my workplace one Thursday afternoon and was on my way home when I met a Malawian I consider to be one of the most astute football managers to have emerged on the local scene.

When I saw Elliot Phwitiko as I was nearing the Shoprite building in Lilongwe heading for the Area 25 minibus rank behind the mall, there was no mistaking him, wearing his trademark cap.

We last met more than 20 years ago and my heart leapt with joy when I recognized him. We greeted each other warmly, shook hands again and again, oblivious of people passing by.

“You, you are still in this world?” an excited Phwitiko said.

“I should be asking you the same question, Elliot,” I responded.

“It has been a long time. What are you doing?” he said.

“I am still with the news agency, but it won’t be long before I bow out,” I said.

The exchange of pleasantries over, I told him someone had enquired about him in one of the local newspapers, and that someone had answered that he was in Lusaka, Zambia, on a business trip.

“Urgh, it must be Zebs who said I was in Zambia,” Phwitiko said, laughing.

Zebs, short for Zebedee, is a popular column that has been appearing in the weekly Malawi News newspaper for years now, whose author is also known by the same pen name.

The person who had asked for Phwitiko’s whereabouts had made the enquiry under Zebedee’s column. I learnt the columnist and Phwitiko have been close friends from their days in college.

“He had to know,” Phwitiko said of Zebedee. “He has been my best friend from our days at Chancellor College [of the University of Malawi].”

He said it was true he had been in Zambia for about a year and told me of how he had been swindled by his business acquaintances there.

And then the conversation turned to Malawi football, in particular that of the Kinna Phiri-Jack Chamangwana era, and also how his MDC United terrorized clubs in the country when it was at its peak.

For about 30 minutes, we reminisced about the good old days when Malawi was a force to reckon with in the world of football not only in the region, but across the continent.

For those who may not have heard of Phwitiko before, he once coached MDC United in the 1980s. The club disbanded after the dissolution of the Malawi Development Corporation (MDC), their sponsors.

MDC United was formed after the disbandment of Berec Power Pack. At its peak under the tutelage of the late Henry Moyo, the club ended one season unbeaten. The record has yet to be surpassed.

MDC United boasted some of the country’s stars of the time, including Clifton Msiya, Frank Sinalo, John Dzimbiri, Daniel Dzinkambani, Davious Wasambo, Joel Chitsime, Holman Malunga and Henry Mwale.

Under the tutelage of Moyo with Phwitiko as a member of the backroom staff, the star-studded club caused untold havoc in the elite league, beating team after team.

Not surprisingly, a rumour began to circulate in football circles after the club’s sudden rise, that MDC United’s success was down to a steaming pot the team carried in its bus when going to play matches.

What prompted the rumour was that every time the team arrived at the venue of their match, the windows of the bus were misted up. And when the players came out, they would be drenched in sweat.

To the supporters of other clubs, the players were sweating because of the steam from the alleged magic pot and refused to accept any other explanation.

To find out the truth, I asked Moyo one day to respond to accusations that his club used juju. Instead of responding, he suggested I went to his residence in Blantyre’s Nyambadwe suburb on a match day.

I learnt that the residence was where the team dressed for games. It was a Saturday and I found players there exercising vigorously, before I joined the team in their bus and headed for the BAT ground.

On the bus, Moyo told me to look around and see if there was a pot. I checked everywhere, even under the seats but saw no pot. Before the bus started off, the sweating players closed all windows.

No sooner had we left the residence than the inside began to get misty, what with the windows closed and perspiration of the players. I felt uncomfortable throughout the ride, to the players’ amusement.

The MDC United team bus was the centre of attraction every time it arrived at the venue of a match. Fans would surround it in the hope of seeing the ‘steaming’ pot. It was the same on our arrival.

“Have you seen the pot?” Moyo asked me when we alighted from the bus. I told him there was no pot and that the rumour about the ‘steaming pot’ was baseless.

Moyo explained in the presence of Phwitiko that the idea to close windows was to induce sweat among his players to energise them after warming-up before going into the field of play.

Moyo started coaching Berec Power Pack, the precursor to MDC United, before he was later appointed national team trainer. After his departure, Phwitiko took over as coach.

“I remember you had a ride with us in the team bus and later proved wrong the ‘steaming pot’ rumour after the article you wrote,” Phwitiko said. “Those were the days when football was thrilling to watch.”

But Phwitiko, who is very modest about his achievement when he was a coach, in turn credited MDC United’s fame partly to the late Daudi Chitulu, who was on the team’s coaching panel.

He described Chitulu, who initially joined the club as a player from Spearhead football club that the MYP (Malawi Young Pioneers) sponsored, as an excellent coach who understood football very well.

“He was thorough in his job and a great tactician,” Phwitiko said. “He would use different formations depending on the opposition.”

He said that even John Gilmore, another great coach of his time who was t one time roped in his club, spoke highly of him and predicted he would be a very good coach.

“It is sad he died early,” Phwitiko said. “He would have made a very good national coach.”

Asked what he thought of the present national team, Phwitiko said some quarters are not happy with his views, but the fact is “none of the players would have made it into MDC United.”

He said he believed the team’s poor performance was not because of the lack of resources, giving an example of Lesotho whose football is on the rise despite the country not being rich.

Ironically, Phwitiko’s biggest disappointment as MDC United coach was his failure to lure the current national coach Ernest Mtawali to join his club from Hardware Stars.

He said the way Mtawali played reminded him of Zambia’s midfielder Charles Musonda who “was a marvel to watch with his ball distribution”. He said he did all he could to poach him without success.

Phwitiko said he had succeeded in enticing Joel Chitsime, John Dzimbiri and Holman Malunga from Hard Ware Stars, but when he went for Mtawali, he failed to get him.

He said he was defeated by the “diplomacy” of Mlaliki, who was Hard Ware Stars’ General Secretary.

“We were at one of the Blantyre hotels holding talks with Hard Ware Stars officials over Mtawali,” he said. “Mlaliki had to kneel down and pleaded with me to leave Mtawali.”

Mlaliki, according to Phwitiko, told the meeting that they had bowed to MDC United’s requests to buy some of their players, but asked them to leave Mtawali to them.

Phwitiko quoted him as saying they had taught “the boy” how to distinguish the right football boot from the left one and that for that reason, they were not willing to sell him at any cost.

Mtawali, 49, later went to South Africa where he played for Bloemfontein Celtic, Orlando Pirates, Ajax Cape Town and Mamelodi Sundowns, establishing himself as one of that country’s best players.

He also played for clubs in France, Argentina and Saudi Arabia.

“I was defeated by the diplomacy of Mlaliki,” Phwitiko said. “It pains me that I failed to bring Mtawali to MDC United.”

Source: Malawi News Agency