Chiefs’ foreign legion
Kaizer Chiefs have a long tradition of exceptional foreign players who have written their names into South African football folklore, helping AmaKhosi to trophy success and allowed them to grow their brand across the continent. These foreigners have also not always had it easy though, with Chiefs fans often quick to write them off if performances do not match expectations early on in their stay. It is often said that foreign players in the domestic game must work twice as hard and be twice as good to receive recognition from fans, and this can create challenges for them away from what happens on the pitch. Zambian striker Collins Mbesuma is one of the best ever foreign imports into the local game and his golden season at Chiefs in the 2004/05 campaign is unlikely to ever be repeated. He scored 35 goals in league and cup for the club, helping them to the Premier Soccer League title as well as the CocaCola Cup. It is a remarkable return as he dazzled opposition defences, and in terms of foreign imports, he has perhaps made the most incredible impact for AmaKhosi. But even he admits that at first he wanted to go back home to Zambia, finding life at Naturena difficult, as he speaks exclusively to Soccer Laduma about his stay at the club.
How did your move to Kaizer Chiefs in the 2003/04 season come about?
I was playing for the Zambia Under- 23 side in the Olympic qualifiers and we beat South Africa 1-0 in Potchefstroom. I scored the goal. I remember it like it was yesterday, I had a good game and I was spotted there by Chiefs. It was in early January 2004 [January 3] and Chiefs signed me a few weeks later. I think pretty much based on how I played in that game. What was your emotions when you knew they wanted to sign you?
I was excited because, as a young player – I was only 19 then, almost 20 – it was my ambition to play outside of Zambia. So this was a foreign move for me. Ok, it was not to Europe, but South Africa was a good start and it provided a professional environment where you could make a living from football, which was not the case in Zambia. I wanted to come here badly. How did you settle in?
I am not going to lie, it was very hard in the beginning. I was very homesick, I had come straight from living at home to a new country with people I did not know. So I wanted to go home initially. I just wanted to leave. But you know, Chiefs had a team of wonderful men. Not just great footballers, but wonderful men. The likes of Shoes Moshoeu, Tinashe Nengomasha, Patrick Mabedi … they helped me settle in and encouraged me a lot. If it was not for those guys, and others, I don’t know … they made me feel like I was in a family, which is just what I needed at the time. Almost every player in the squad was older than me, so I was this youngster from a foreign country, but they made sure I was ok. The coach [Ted Dumitru] also knew my father [Francis Kajiya] from back in Zambia, so that helped also. Do you remember your debut?
Of course, because I scored and got badly injured in making the goal [laughs]. It was against Black Leopards, after 15 or so minutes, the cross came in and I went to shoot. As I did my studs got stuck
in the pitch and I twisted my ankle. It was still a goal, so that was nice but I was out for a while [two months] and the ankle bothered me when I came back, so I was not at my best for the rest of the season.
After you came back you were in and out of the team for the rest of that campaign. Did you feel like you could make it at the club and how did the fans treat you in that period?
Yes, it was a difficult period but the coach was very patient with me and that helped. The fans … how can I put this … they were not sure about me, and maybe rightly so because the ankle meant I could not show them what I was capable of. So the fans looked at me and maybe wondered if I had what it takes.
Are we correct in saying you had not played as a striker before you joined Chiefs? It seems remarkable …
It is true! I started as a left-back and then was playing left-wing for Zambia Under-23s. It was only when I joined Chiefs that I started playing as a striker, so that was another thing that was difficult, adjusting to this new position. When you are used to playing out wide then have to do it more centrally, you have to adjust your whole game. It took some time but, like I said, the coach was
very patient with me. He helped me a lot. And then came the second season where you scored 35 goals in 42 starts for the club in all competitions, starting on the opening day of the league campaign with a hat-trick against Dynamos …
I was more relaxed in the second season. I had settled in, had a good pre-season, knew my teammates better and, maybe most importantly, they knew me better. They knew what my strengths were and we played to those. And as a striker, the more you score, the most you want to play, and when you are scoring every week it is the best feeling. Of course, I could not have done it without the team we had. A great team that was gelling in every department. We did not have any weaknesses. I just felt so confident in every game.
It was maybe inevitable after that season that an overseas team would come in for you and you moved to English Premier League side Portsmouth. Did you have any hesitation?
No hesitation, because that was the dream, right? Ok, things did not work out, I got a bad [knee] injury, but I don’t regret anything. I think I was maybe a little unlucky, but when I went to Portugal [Maritimo] I did
pretty well, I think I finished with seven goals and had some good games. I don’t regret leaving Chiefs then. I believed in myself that I could make it.
By the time you finished at Chiefs you were a fan favourite, did you realise then the impact you had on the team?
I think back then it did not click with me but now I see it still, all these years on. Chiefs fans still stop me on the street and want to talk about my time there. They still remember me but, at the time, I did not see the impact I
was making. Ok, they would chant my name in games, Mr Putco Mafani (then Chiefs PRO) made sure of that!
You are still playing at the age of 36, and still scoring for University of Pretoria with 10 goals this season. How long will you go on?
As long as I can run and I am still enjoying playing, I want to go on. Like you said, I am still scoring goals so I am contributing to my team. That is the most important thing. I just take it season-by-season, I have no plans to stop yet.