Kapambwe Mulenga – The Tough Tackling Defender Who Took No Prisoners

Kapambwe Mulenga, clad in the yellow of Power Dynamos, ran into space down the right side in the Kabwe Warriors half and called out for the ball at the top of his voice. ‘Summerbee!’ Wisdom Chansa looked up and played a beautiful pass into the path of the player nicknamed ‘Gentile.’

The sometime-midfielder who was imposing himself on the match in a closely fought encounter of the 1987 Independence Cup final later found himself on the right and spotted his teammates in the box. He curled the ball with his characteristic left foot, an inswinger that eluded Richard Mwanza the Kabwe Warriors stalwart to give his team a 1-0 lead. Warriors went on to win 3-2 in a memorable final.
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What was odd was that Kapambwe was not playing in the middle with Wisdom Chansa for the national team but for Power Dynamos. A conflict within the Nkana ranks had earlier that season, seen him cross the Kitwe dual carriageway to join Nkana’s rivals. It was a move that split opinion in Kitwe and led to quite a few fisticuffs in drinking places across the city to resolve the arguments between fans in a way only Kitwe residents can understand.
The following season, however, he returned to familiar grounds, once again playing for the all-red Nkana Red Devil’s, the team he had grown up loving as a boy and that he would eventually play his heart out for, becoming a legend in the process.
With the exception of that brief moment in time, in 1987, Kapambwe Mulenga ate, drank, and slept Nkana. He had broken into the ranks of the team in 1982 stepping into the left fullback role. He made the position his own thereafter.
He was immediately recognised for his no-prisoners approach when dealing with strikers. The tackles came fast and furious, initially earning him several red cards in his early days and the infamous nickname ‘Gentile after the ruthless Italian Claudio Gentile who had ripped the shirt off Diego Maradona’s back at the 1982 world cup in Italy.
Such was his reputation as a hard man he brought fear and dread into the players he marked. In the 1985 battle for the league championship between Nkana and Power Dynamos that was to be decided on the final day of the season, Nkana, despite playing at the Arthur Davies Stadium, won 2-0. “Gents Power’s” shackling of Lucky Msiska played a pivotal role in determining the final outcome.
The Nkana team between 1982 and 1993 totally dominated Zambian league football. While the back four changed over time with Fighton Simukonda and Ben Bamfuchile giving way to Modon Malitoli and Eston Mulenga and the right fullback changing from John Kalusa to John Mofya to Wiseman Chizumira, Kapambwe stayed ever-present. Due to his versatility, he would often be found wearing the number 6 shirt, dominating the midfield with an impressive range of passing skills.
In the national team he was a fan-favourite. His first touch, an inevitable rubbing of the ball into the turf with hic cultured left foot, brought the crowd to its feet. He was immensely talented yet, unlike a lot of players with skill who do not endeavour enough because of their natural talents, he played like his life depended on it. This endeared him to the fans in both Nkana and the national team. Even the opposing fans loved him. Off the field he was a simple man. His speech marked by a lisp, he wore his fame with the humbleness many in such a position fail to maintain.
Once, watching a match from the vantage point of an elevated platform that gave the best view at the low-lying Nkana stadium, he walked in, having not made the team due to injury. He had obviously had a couple of drinks. The younger players watching from there fled in a hurry at the sight of him. He squinted in my direction, gave a wry smile and said hi. From there he began to call out to his teammates, issuing defensive advice, even though they were not in earshot. Later, he muttered to himself, ’I could play in this match while carrying my son on my back.’ He was a character.
As age began to slow him down he played more frequently in the midfield role which didn’t require the rigours of defensive duties. After Whiteson Changwe became the national team’s de facto left back Kapambwe was in and out of the team. Once at Garden Park stadium in Kitwe when excluded just prior to Zambia’s participation in the 1990 Africa Cup of Nations, he was played in a Copperbelt select team for a practice match against the main team.
That day he showed why he ranks among the greats of Zambian football. One minute he was at the back tackling to save the situation, the next he was in the middle of the park playing defence-splitting passes. He even found time to sprint forward to get on to the end of cross with a goal-bound diving header. He left the pitch to a standing ovation with fans chanting his name. The next day he was recalled to national duty.
Towards the end of his time with the national team ill-health began to slow him down. When the national team were killed in the air crash off the coast of Gabon he was no longer in the squad.
Yet after the tragedy he was brought back into the fold and fittingly played at the 1994 Africa Cup final in Tunisia where Zambia finished second. When he returned after the tournament he famously said, having shaken hands with the great Pele, he had nothing left to prove in the game. The curtain came down on his playing career shortly after.
He was key to Nkana’s winning of nine league titles between 1982 and 1993 and in their reaching the final of the 1990 Africa Champions Cup final where they lost to JS Kabylie 5-4 after a penalty shoot-out. He also played in 3 Africa cup of Nations in 1986, 1990 and 1994 where he won a bronze and silver medal.
After his death in 1996 Kitwe paid tribute to its famous son. Wusakile came to a standstill. There is a pub outside Nkana Stadium since named in his honour.
More important, he still lives in the hearts of Zambian football fans who saw him weave his magic and inversely, act as executioner when the going required it.

(Credit: Ponga Liwewe)

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