MATHEWS KABAMBA, Kitwe
WHILE soccer icon Kalusha Bwalya gave Rainford Kalaba his senior Chipolopolo debut 12 years ago, current national team coach Wedson Nyirenda appears to be one that handed ‘The Master’ his last appearance in national colours.
On his unveiling as Chipolopolo trainer last year, Nyirenda preached a change of mindset by players in his quest to restore the country’s lost glory on the continent.
Nyirenda warned of wholesale but gradual changes to the team, which has relatively underperformed since winning the Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon in 2012.
“My coming is purely to rebuild, but taking two things, while rebuilding we are looking at qualifying for the World Cup, so that is where the challenge becomes hard.
“Am I under pressure? I am one person who loves challenges. I have been in such situations before and I have come out with good performances. And before I came to Zesco United, I was written off but I did what I could do and today Zesco is a darling of Africa,” Nyirenda said.
Nyirenda has been preaching rebuilding and discipline since the first day he took over the mantle at the senior national team, but has received some criticism in the manner he is going about this issue.
On June 10 during a 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Mozambique at Levy Mwanawasa Stadium in Ndola, Kalaba went straight to the dressing room after being substituted for Given Singuluma in the second-half.
Zambia went on to lose 1-0.
A few weeks later, Nyirenda told the media that Kalaba would be disciplined ahead of the Algerian encounter. It did not need to take a fortune teller to know that Kalaba would not make the squad.
Kalaba responded to Nyirenda in the media the following day “I got permission from the assistant coaches before going to the dressing room just after I was substituted. I got permission to take a shower. I am the captain and would not want to disrespect the coach.”
Last Tuesday, Nyirenda announced a 32-member provisional squad ahead of the must-win Russia World Cup qualifier against Algeria set for Saturday.
The TP Mazembe midfielder is suspended for the first leg after accumulating two yellow cards against Nigeria and Cameroon, but is eligible for the return leg, thus his omission from the provisional squad seems to have signalled the beginning of the end of Kalaba’s national team career.
After shining at Under-17 and 20 levels, Kalaba made his maiden senior appearance as a teenager in a Council of Southern Africa Football Associations (COSAFA) Senior Challenge Cup’s 3-0 win over Swaziland at Woodlands Stadium in which he also contributed a goal.
From there on, Kalaba has made 100 appearances for the Chipolopolo, scoring 15 goals in his 12-year career.
Kalaba has played in 19 international friendlies, 23 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers, 16 World Cup qualifiers and 18 matches at the Africa Cup of Nations finals.
The former Zesco United and Afrisport midfielder has played nine matches for Zambia in the COSAFA Cup while turning up five times in the Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations (CECAFA) Senior Challenge Cup.
His is part of Zambia’s golden generation that bagged Chipolopolo’s maiden Africa Cup title under the tutelage of Frenchman Herve Renard after beating Ivory Cost 8-7 on penalties in Libreville in 2012.
Talented as he is, Kabala has polarised opinion among pundits and fans across the country.
Kalaba was appointed Chipolopolo skipper on January 7, 2015 before the Africa Cup finals in Equatorial Guinea, taking over from Russia-based defender Stopilla Sunzu.
Zambian football historian and statistician Daniel Kaoma describes Kalaba’s two-year stint at the helm of the team as uninspiring.
“Since 1964, when Zambia got affiliated to FIFA, we have had something close to 38 captains for Chipolopolo. Kalaba’s reign as captain can be described as just one of those.
“He is the type of captain that has failed to provide leadership…he is one who when the team, is sinking does not fight to save the team, rather he would sink with the team,” Kaoma said.