23 years on: Remembering Numba Mwila – ‘the Little Man with Big Ideas.’
By Jerry Muchimba
Today marks 23 years since the Zambia Airforce (ZAF) plane carrying 18 Zambia national soccer team players, technical staff, passengers and crashed off the coast of Gabon.
In remembering the gallant team, Zambianfootball.co.zm takes a look at one of the rare talents that perished with the team in Gabon.
In mid-1985, some 5 years before I had even heard of René Higuita, I witnessed the ‘scorpion kick’ being executed by a very special player.
Higuita of course was the eccentric Colombian goalkeeper who stunned the football world by diving forward and arcing his legs over his head to kick the ball away with his feet in the so-called scorpion kick, during a friendly match involving Colombia and England in September 1995. He was also known for venturing from his goal line to come infield and dribble past opposing players and for such antics, was nicknamed El Loco (The Crazy One). At the 1990 World Cup in Italy he unwisely tried this on Roger Milla who snatched the ball from him and scored to send Cameroun into the quarter-finals and Colombia out of the World Cup. The way Milla laughed as he made his way to the corner flag to wiggle his hips in the habitual and now famous goal celebration was priceless.
But this article is not about Milla or Higuita. It’s a about a left-footed player that I had the privilege of playing against before he made it big on the Zambian soccer scene. His name was Numba Mwila and even at a young age, it was clear that he was destined for great things.
I first came across Numba at Perseverance Primary School in Ndola where his father was a teacher. Numba was ahead by two grades and unlike the rest of his siblings who went by the surname Numba, this was given to him as his first name with Mwila as his surname.
He later moved to Kanini Primary School and was the stand out player for Kanini, who also featured another good footballer in the former President’s son Miko Chiluba and the two were good friends.
Us boys from Kansenshi formed a team which would lock horns with Numba’s team, made up of boys from Hillcrest. Our best player was Felix Nsama, a skilful midfielder who later played for Ndola United, Roan United, as well as the national team and is now an accountant with the Ministry of Finance. My elder brother Celestine played at centre back and was the captain of our side. I was the youngest in my team so I played at right back as the bigger boys took up all the forward positions. I was really punching above my weight and wasn’t the best but was fearless and got stuck in. I would later feature for my school teams and get involved in amateur soccer but in the end, school took priority, much to my mother’s relief.
Numba’s team was made up of several good players apart from him – Maybin Chama, another left footed player who would go on to feature for Ndeke Eagles and Ndola United, Numba’s younger brother Mukuka, who would also play for Ndola and Nkana Red Devils and Jerry Phiri, whose father Charles had played for, and coached Ndola United. While our team was made up of mostly average players, they had better players but Numba was a cut above the rest.
Apart from Mukuka, Numba had other brothers – Simon who was a year behind me at my school and was also a skilful player though he never made a career out of football while current Zanaco coach Mumamba was too young to play in those matches and would watch from the sidelines.
We played bare-footed with one side without their shirts to distinguish them from the other team. We were often on the receiving end of some heavy defeats but sometimes we held our own. Most of our games were friendlies though sometimes we would raise the stakes and play for money but such games would be more intense and would sometimes end in dispute.
Our battle ground was the Perseverance Primary pitch, a very good ground in that it had a level surface and grass everywhere and was in much better than some of the pitches I would play on later. Numba was a joy to behold. Great control, amazing dribbling technique and it seemed like he could run with the ball glued to his left foot. He was a creative force but sometimes scored some stunning goals. He was short and stocky but what he lacked in height, he made up in skill. The day he performed the scorpion kick was like any other game though I do not remember the score or anything else in that match.
Numba usually played in midfield but was so good that he was comfortable in any position really. On that day, he was in central defence and as the ball was chipped over his head our striker must have thought he was clear on goal but before he get to the ball, Numba lunged forward onto his hands and his feet had swung forward and connected perfectly with the ball to clear it from danger. Everyone on the pitch was amazed and we all talked about it long after the game.
Now I know that it was just a pick-up game as opposed to Higuita who performed it in real matches but the fact that Numba had the gall to even try it out spoke volumes about his talent. He loved football so much and would play whenever he had the opportunity. This was probably the reason why his father sent him to boarding school at Chiwala Secondary but while there he featured for Ndola Lime and was one of their best players.
When he completed school, he joined Abram Mokola’s Vitafoam United in 1990 but only stayed with them for a season and moved on to the top Zambian club at the time, Nkana Red Devils. Despite the star-studded line-up, Numba fit in without problems, rubbing shoulders with big names like Kenneth and Mordon Malitoli, Gibby Mbasela, Amos Bwalya, Stephen Mwansa, Dennis Kabwe and Eston Mulenga. The press loved him and due to his lack of height and exceptional skill, he was nicknamed ‘the little man with big ideas.’
His performances at Nkana caught the eye of Zambia national team coach Samuel ‘Zoom’ Ndhlovu leading to a call-up. Shortly after I went to the University of Zambia (Unza) in 1992, Nkana came to play Zanaco so we trooped to Sunset Stadium, using a bush path in an area which is now made up of malls and office blocks and sure enough, Numba was in the starting line up playing on the left wing. I watched excitedly as he tormented the Zanaco defenders and the Kalampas made short work of Zanaco 2-0. This was someone I had known from my childhood who had hit the big time. I waited for the players after the game so that I could talk to Numba. He was happy to see me and we chatted before he mounted the Nkana team bus. At the end of that season, he won the league with Nkana.
He featured for Zambia in CAN and World Cup qualifiers and was on the score sheet when Zambia beat Tanzania 3-1 in Mwanza in January 1993. His career was headed for the stratosphere and it seemed only a matter of time before he was signed a professional contract with a European club.
Numba featured for Zambia under Godfrey ‘Ucar’ Chitalu and he also played when Zambia thrashed Mauritius 3-0 in Belle Vue Maurel thanks to Kelvin Mutale’s hat trick in April 1993. Then came the terrible plane crash off the Gabonese coast which left the nation in mourning.
We were left to wonder what could have been when a talented team of players and coaches was wiped out and to this day I still recall the skills of the little man with big ideas, which I witnessed firsthand.
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