If Divine Lunga’s first coach had spared the rod, perhaps his prodigious talent would have been spoiled.
Siphambaniso Dube, a teacher-turned top development coach, vividly remembers the day he identified the talent of the then 11-year-old forward.
The director of Ajax Hotspur, now a first division side in Zimbabwe’s second largest city, Bulawayo, was searching for young gems for a development side he was setting up in the year 2006.
Young Lunga was one of the boys playing on a bumpy, deplorable school ground. Barely a strand of grass could be found on that field. But the awful state of the playing field was the last of Dube’s concerns.
Among the 22 boys training for the school near his house, Lukhanyiso Primary, was a scrawny Grade Six boy. He had a cultured, nice left foot. It was almost unbelievable each time he unleashed a shot that the power behind the ball came from his tiny left foot.
“I saw him at a school called Lukhanyiso Primary in Bulawayo. I was busy looking for players to build a junior team,” Dube tells FARPost.
At Lukhanyiso, the youngster was their dependable striker, notching goal after goal if it was not an assist. Of course, because of his versatility they would sometimes play him in an advanced midfield position or even on the left side of attack.
Gugulethu Dlomo, who was in the company of Dube on the day, says they could have argued about the abilities of any other player on the pitch, but there was unanimity when it came to Lunga.
In any case, left-footed players are rarer. Even rarer is a good left footed player. So, it was a no brainer, that the youngster would form part of their first Under 12 team.
In fact, from the very onset, the issue was how far the refined left foot could take this pacey, skilful boy. But, growing up under the care of his granny in Mpopoma, a township in the western suburbs of Bulawayo, he could easily get away with anything.
Just weeks after his talent was discovered by Dube, the boy found himself consumed by a newfound love for PlayStation. For days, he skipped training and immersed himself in the video games at a friend’s home. Football was momentarily forgotten.
For granny, who unfortunately passed on last year, it did not really matter. He was a little boy growing up and exploring his passions. But, for his coaches, his was a rare talent that could take him places. Something had to be done to get him back to the training ground every day after school.
“His grandmother raised him, so we would go and get him from her. When his friend got a PlayStation, he didn’t want to come to training. We had to take small tree branches and give him a bit of a beating,” recalls Dube as he laughs.
But there was a reason the boy had stopped coming to training. Thembani Jubane, who had a stint with Ajax years before Lunga, knows the story.
Apparently, the other boys took unkindly to his humiliating dribbles in training. They had to come up with a plan to put an end to the dishonour he was subjecting them to.
“I’m told he humiliated some of the boys there with his skills and so they started kicking him. You know how football boys are when they become cliques, they team up and try to make life difficult for whoever they don’t like. That’s why he ended up staying at home,” Jubane tells FARPost, a story Lunga himself corroborates.
He knew from that day that missing a session would land him in trouble. “I’m sure his grandmother appreciated later on when Chicken Inn came and offered to pay his school fees,” Dube adds.
Over the next five years, the Ajax supremo says the boy exhibited tremendous discipline and made strides in his career. So confident was Macgyver, as he was nicknamed after the protagonist in the famous TV series, that at some point he tried his luck at the biggest club in the city, Highlanders FC.
“He tried joining Highlanders at some point, but one of the coaches said he was too skinny and wouldn’t manage to play,” recalls Dube, adding that it did not deter him.
A Premiership team in the same city, Chicken Inn came for him when he was 17 in 2012. His handlers thought he was ripe for the next stage, even handing him the captain’s armband for their third-tier team a year prior.
His football education would continue at the ‘Gamecocks’ for the next two years, often operating as the traditional number 11.
The first year was spent in the Under 18 side and the second in the reserve side that competed in the third tier League. That was until Chicken Inn head coach Joey Antipas had a crisis.
“He was a winger playing for the development team, I then converted him to fullback. I had a senior left back who was playing truant missing training and play acting he was injured, and he was the only left back in the side, so I threw ‘Magaya’ into the wolves and from that day he was a regular,” Antipas, who had a stint with AmaZulu, tells FARPost.
“The boy was showing great potential then. I had to take the risk and it paid off. From then on, it was just building his confidence,” adds the former Zimbabwe national team coach.
In 2015, aged 20, he had his first taste of title success when the Gamecocks were crowned champions after a remarkable run in the Zimbabwe Premier Soccer League.
That same year in June, ‘Magaya’, as many affectionately refer to him, got his first national team call up. The game was a Chan qualifier against Comoros, and it was all joy and jubilation.
“At first I could not believe that it was me who had been given a national assignment, I was just excited, and I couldn’t hide my joy as I celebrated the call up with my family,” he told Sunday News, a Bulawayo weekly.
Sadly, it turned out to be a nightmarish debut to his international career when he twisted his knee while trying to make a clearance from a corner kick. His left knee sustained three fractures and he says it almost felt like his career was over before it even took flight. The difficulties in walking did not make matters any better.
“I just thought my career was done and the thought of not going back to the football field gave me a torrid time at night because sometimes I even failed to sleep,” he said at the time.
In September, Lunga made an astonishing recovery and returned to training four weeks earlier than expected following a knee operation in July.
The following year, he was back in full flight, up and down the left wing, against the big boys in the Caf Champions League. He was part of the Bulawayo side’s team that beat Mamelodi Sundowns 1-0 courtesy of a Mitchell Katsvairo swerving rocket from the edge of the box that gave Wayne Sandilands no chance.
In July 2018, then Arrows coach Clinton Larsen was in desperate need of a left-back following the departure of Lehlohonolo Nonyane.
Lunga had just had an outstanding run in the Cosafa Cup played in Polokwane where he featured in all three matches on the Warriors’ way to glory.
“Clinton Larsen signed him when he was coach at Arrows, he seemed to have liked the team because he had also signed Danny Phiri,” Antipas adds.
Since then, he has produced one man-of-the match performance after the other. It has all culminated to the moment that has made Dube a gratified man.
That was 21 June 2019, when he pocketed Egypt and Liverpool talisman Mohamed Salah in an Africa Cup of Nations [Afcon] opener.
“It was such a proud moment for us, up to now pride wells up on the inside of me when I think of that masterly display Divine put up. The world got to know about him that day,” says an emotional Dube.
At 25, exactly six weeks before his 26th birthday, the man who unearthed his talent is convinced his prodigy still has a lot more to achieve.
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