Justin Shonga: The apple that fell so close to the tree!

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The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, so goes the adage!

Out of nine children in his family, Justin Shonga is that one apple that fell really close to the tree!

Shonga’s dad, according to his sister, Catherine, looked exactly like Justin, and played the ‘same position’.

“He looked like our dad when he was younger and played the same position,” Catherine Shonga tells FARPost in a telephonic interview.

Her brother, who is a trained police officer back in Zambia, further reveals how he was named after his pop.

“I played right wing like my father. I even looked exactly like my father when I was younger. I started changing as I grew older,” says Shonga junior.

Senior Shonga turned out for Zambian giants ZESCO United during his heydays, a club his son dreamt of representing some day.

Surprisingly, in the early stages of his love for football, he would not let his son play the game. Instead, he wanted him to focus on his books, forgetting his was a sporting family.

He had actually married a netball star, whose nine kids, including girls were all passionate about playing football.

“We are nine in our family and we all played football including the ladies. My father was a footballer, and my mother was a netballer,” he says, as his sister corroborates in a separate interview.

Interestingly, Shonga is the only one who has developed to play the game professionally and even gone on to play outside the borders of Zambia.

“My two brothers have played for the paramilitary (a wing of the police in Zambia),” he reveals.

Perhaps the others succumbed to their dad’s insistence on focusing on their studies.

But for Junior, as they called him at home, even his time in the police force would not stop him from pursuing the ultimate footballing dream.

“We wanted to play football and my dad wanted to stop us. People could even see that these ones can play,” the 24-year-old says.

Again, with him, it was always apparent that he had what it took to go far with the game.

The first time he donned a national team jersey while still at school, aged 14, he was also handed the captain’s armband. He captained the Under 15s before being handed a similar role for the Under 17.

Young Shonga had seen his old man demonstrating what it took to play on the wing upfront. So, he slotted in perfectly and excelled, buttressing his contention that he could go far in the game.

“You know parents, how they stop kids (from pursuing sport) wanting them to focus on school,” he says.

Before his junior national team stints though, Shonga played for Smiling Kids in Chipata, some 500km from the capital Lusaka. As he grew up, he later joined the Chipata Young Stars Football Club.

But, the admirer of former Chelsea forward Didier Drogba, fell in love with Orlando Pirates. The Buccaneers side that had the likes of Bafana Bafana record goalscorer Benni McCarthy between 2011 and 2013 thrilled him.

Of course, donning skull and crossbones, seemed a farfetched dream.

In fact, pursuing the game professionally was written off at one point. He had sustained a career-threatening knee injury. One that nobody, except his praying mother, believed he could bounce back from.

“There’s a point I almost quit the game, when I left Young Stars, I went to Kabwe Warriors. I sustained a knee injury and stayed out of football for a year and a half,” Shonga tells FARPost.

He almost made an interesting decision at that point. “I almost went to become a nurse, like a midwife. I was about 18 at the time.”

The football dream would have been shattered to smithereens.

But his mother – undoubtedly the wind beneath his wings – carried him through that difficult period.

“I came back because my mother kept on believing in God, she said the injury shall heal. I remember I missed the Under 20 tournament played in South Africa,” he says.

“I used to cry every day; I was mama’s boy.”

Amid despair, Mrs Shonga never stopped praying. She never stopped believing. In fact, she would often tell him that no setback lasts forever.

“At some point, she told me to start running. I kept going and eventually everything changed,” he recalls.

After his recovery, he stayed with his hometown club – Young Stars. It felt right at that point. He would gradually gain match fitness and make sure he was totally fine.

But it would not be long before Nkwazi, a first division team, expressed interest in his services. But mama’s boy was reluctant to leave her side. Joining Nkwazi meant leaving home to stay 500 km away in Lusaka.

“After two months, Nkwazi wanted me but I never wanted to leave home.”

But mommy was so keen to have her son live out his dream and so she encouraged him to link up with Nkwazi.

And another mini setback awaited him. The club’s coach Elijah Chikwanda was not instantly awe-struck when he joined the club popularly known as Highflying.

“He chased me out of the pitch and told me ‘you’re not a good footballer. You’re not a quality player’.”

But at the paramilitary team, there was a place for him. But it came with getting employed in the force.

“I went for training for a year and two months. I was very fit during that time, I got back to my normal fitness and I was called back to Nkwazi in no time.”

On 21 May, 2016, he became the second player to score four goals in one match that particular season. They beat his former team Kabwe Warriors 4-1 courtesy of three second half goals and a 16th minute opener all by him.

“I got my first national team call up by George Lwandamina,” he adds.

Contrary to Shonga, Chikwanda says from the onset he knew he was set for dizzy heights in the game. “Justin has been good through and through, he has always been a brilliant player to me.

“When I was at Nkwazi, I used to monitor Justin a lot when he was at the Police College. At the time, I noticed that he did not have enough game time, and that was affecting him. In 2015, I took him to Nkwazi’s junior team so that he could get more game time, he did not even spend a season there. I brought him to the senior team the following season, in 2016.”

Exactly a year after burying four goals in one match, Shonga caught the eye of Mamelodi Sundowns, but he insists he never signed.

“Sundowns wanted to sign me, but I didn’t sign. I was told to first talk to my employer (Zambia’s paramilitary). This was in May 2017. They were late (in engaging the employer) and Pirates came directly to the police and spoke to them. That’s how I joined Pirates on 29 September 2017.”

He describes moving to Pirates as a dream come true.

“It was like a dream come true. I used to watch the (Soweto) derby all the time,” he says.

The Chipata-born striker had his brightest Pirates spell under Milutin ‘Micho’ Sredojevic, who is now in charge of Chipolopolo, between 2017 and 2019.

Following Sredojevic’s departure in August 2019, Shonga slipped down the pecking order under Rulani Mokwena and later Josef Zinnbauer.

The Zambia international joined Tshakhuma Tsha Madzivhandila on 15 October 2020 after being released by Pirates at the end of last season.

He enjoyed a fair share of game time at the Limpopo side under the tutelage of Joel Masutha.

Shonga featured six times in the league for TTM this season and hit the back of the net once and had one assist.

Five months down the line, he has packed his bags to the Western Cape where he completed a move to Cape Town City this week.

“I’m just looking forward to fitting into the team and have a good time, work hard with the team, win games and trophies because it has a good reputation in terms of winning,” he told the club’s website.

“We will work hard for the people of Cape Town and will try and achieve more for them. I’m looking forward to good days here in Cape Town,” he added.

As he begins his expedition in the Mother City after penning a deal that keeps him at CTC until June 2024, people like Chikwanda and his mom will hope the workhorse, creator, and ever-reliable finisher in him is awakened.

RELATED STORY: Shonga pens emotional letter to Pirates

By Mthokozisi Dube

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