“Even our late uncle Steve Phiri, who once coached Umtata Bush Bucks, QwaQwa Stars and AmaZulu, Tony Phiri and my other uncle Bryan Phiri all played football,” Mbulu tells FARPost.
So, there was no fighting it when, at a young age, they started gravitating towards football. It was a family affair. Perhaps hereditary!
The list of footballers in their family goes on and on including Mbulu’s younger brother, Tony, who is also a striker for TNM Super League outfit, Mighty Tigers.
Hannock ‘Hardknocker’ Phiri, pictured above, the World Boxing Federation (WBF) All Africa lightweight champion, is the odd one out having chosen the boxing ring.
Of course, Gerald Phiri snr, father to Gerald Phiri jnr, was the most prominent of the brothers yesteryear.
He has also been the hands-on one in their football development. When his playing career was over and he turned to coaching, he took it upon himself to preserve the family’s sporting legacy.
He had already started planting the seeds in his son from as early as eight. Phiri jnr reveals how he would wake him up in the early hours of the morning just to go and train in their backyard in Blantyre – Malawi’s oldest city.
And when he started coaching, he would often take his son to matches whenever he was available. In essence, a football career was just inevitable for the boys.
However, unlike all the other attackers in the family, younger Phiri was eager to be a goalkeeper.
“Gerald wanted to be a goalkeeper when I started training him, but I always told him he would end up playing upfront like most of us in the family.
“My brother [Mbulu’s dad] was also a striker although he didn’t play professionally,” Phiri snr tells FARPost.
He vividly remembers the time his nephew Mbulu tried his luck at Big Bullets.
He was only a 16-year-old teenager unknown to many yet eager to give a shot at soccer. His biggest undoing was that he was attempting this at a club regarded as the number one football brand in Malawi in terms of support base, league title winning record and financial muscle.
While his uncle was at Bullets, serving as assistant to Edingtone Ng’onamo, pictured below, it was somewhat a hundred-to-one shot.
Long shot it was, especially considering this was a boy coming from Mangochi, a village 300km from Bullets’ base in Blantyre.
Back in Mangochi, located near the southern end of the famous Lake Malawi, he had not gotten any proper development.
“Like all other kids, we grew up playing football on the streets with my friends. I also played it at school, though sometimes I’d play as a goalkeeper,” he tells FARPost.
So, when he made the audacious audition at Bullets, under the watchful eye of his celebrated uncle, he had made up his mind that he wanted to pursue football.
Unfortunately, there was little the uncle could do as he was only an assistant, and the head coach had his own views about the boy.
“It was good to have a look at him because he’s my nephew. He was still young at the time and the team is one of the biggest in Malawi. It was difficult for him to come in at that young age.
“We were also struggling financially, and we couldn’t get the best players, so coming in at that point would have put him under so much pressure,” Phiri snr says.
Eventually, the two boys Mbulu and Phiri jnr, were brave enough to carve their own paths.
Phiri jnr went on to make his name at Mighty Wanderers in 2011 before Zimbabwean side Caps United snapped him up.
For Mbulu, Zasher Mnong’oneza, who captained Malawi Armed Forces College [MAFCO], heard about him from a friend who played for Bullets.
“I had a friend who was playing at Bullets. He is the one who told me about Richard trying his luck at Bullets. He thought the boy was good but would not get a chance at Bullets,” Mnong’oneza tells FARPost.
So, Mnong’oneza recommended him to the Malawi Armed Forces College [MAFCO] technical team in 2010.
Sereo Lyton Gondwe, pictured above, who was at the helm of MAFCO at the time, took a liking to the young striker and signed him.
The youngster grew into the team while establishing himself as a proven goal scorer. In his maiden season, they won the second-tier championship to gain promotion to the topflight.
They clinched third position in the 2013/14 season and won the President Cup. The following year, the team finished in seventh position and reached the quarterfinals of the Malawi Carlsberg Cup and semi-finals in the Standard Bank Knockout Cup.
In 2015, the army side finished as league runners-up, their highest league placing and reached again the quarter-final of the Malawi Carlsberg Cup.
Gondwe, currently Malawi’s national beach soccer coach, remembers how they offered him a Warrant Officer Class One job in the Malawi Defence Force [MDF] in 2013 just to make sure he was stable financially. In any case, his dad was also an army man, and he found the offer an enticing proposition.
“The idea was so he could have a bit of stability financially while playing for us. We didn’t want him to think of too many things except his game,” Gondwe tells FARPost.
That move worked out as he spent seven years at the military side, developing the knack of scoring all-important goals.
In the 2016/17 season, he won the Golden Boot Award after scoring 19 goals. The massive feat caught the attention of scouts, earning him a move to Mozambican giants Costa do Sol.
“It was good, I went there in 2017, and I scored nine goals. I spent two years at Costa do Sol,” Mbulu says.
In between his time in Maputo, he had a six-month stint at Portuguese semi-professional side Sanjoanense. However, it was during his second spell at Costa do Sol where he caught Baroka’s attention who eventually signed him on a three-year-deal last year.
“Coach Wedson Nyirenda signed me because he had previously coached in Mozambique and he followed me,” adds Mbulu.
His cousin Phiri jnr, on the other hand, was having a nightmarish stint at Bidvest Wits between 2015 and 2018.
He had three loan stints during that period, being shipped out to Platinum Stars twice and Botswana’s Township Rollers.
His turning point, however, was the Cosafa tournament in 2019 where he was voted Player of the Tournament after scoring thrice in five games and providing three assists.
It was no easy feat for Phiri jnr considering that he went to the tournament while clubless after leaving then first division side Ajax Cape Town where he spent months on loan due to limited game time at Bidvest Wits.
Wits had only fielded him thrice in the three years of his contract. The Cosafa Cup display earned him a three-year contract and a reunion with his cousin.
“They joined Baroka around the same time,” Phiri snr says. The moves came three weeks apart.
Even when 27-year-old Mbulu went 25 matches without a goal for Baroka in all competitions, his cousin was there to remind him he was a good striker.
Last year, the left-footed Phiri jnr scored the only goal of Malawi’s 1-0 aggregate win over Botswana in the first round of qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup, with the team’s reward a place in a second-round group which features Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Mozambique and Malawi.
In April, the 27-year-old Mbulu was rewarded with military promotion after his goal took The Flames to qualification for their first AFCON finals since 2010.
His rank in the army, despite being on unpaid leave for many years, moved up from Corporal to Sergeant in recognition of the contribution he made towards a national cause as a way of motivating him.
It was his solitary goal against Uganda which took Malawi through as runners-up from Group B. The last time the Flames were at the Afcon finals was in 2010, making next January’s edition their third appearance after making their debut back in 1984.
“It’s such a beautiful thing to score such a goal as a striker. I’m happy that I was able to put smiles on the people of Malawi with that goal,” says Mbulu, who has scored 8 goals in 19 matches this season, across all competitions.
When Phiri snr reflects on the impact his boys have made, he says they take pride as a family and can only hope they continue to excel.
“We feel proud of them. We didn’t expect they could reach this far, but they’ve done quite well, and we hope they continue,” he says.
Meanwhile, the two boys know pretty well that there is a family legacy to preserve!
By Mthokozisi Dube