My phone was almost ruined the other day - the glee that dripped from Robson Sharuko’s message to me about Marvelous Nakamba was very tangible - almost liquid in nature. Cue a bowl of dry rice.
Sharuko works on the sports desk of Zimbabwe’s Herald. His love, passion and knowledge for the game is second to none, and I left the conversation almost stunned with envy - at how open his mind was to football and how closed off mine was in comparison. Starting this conversation up in the first place was an effort to hear about Aston Villa’s latest signing - Nakamba - from somebody who actually knows about him.
I reached out with a simple message, an intro - and I received paragraphs, swimming with Zimbabwean sports lore. Waxing lyrical about his pride in Zimbabwe’s sporting performance (one that belies it’s status as a fairly smaller landlocked nation on the continent), snippets on Nakamba are almost buried as he talks about Nick Price - a triple golf Major, the Zimbabwe sourced Rugby Springboks of South Africa like Tendai Mtawarira and the swimmer Kirsty Coventry who brought back Olympic gold. Sharuko did not let me forget easily the sporting history of Zimbabwe, something that Villa’s latest signing has now entered.
You want to know Nakamba? You want to know what Marvelous means to his nation? Robson will tell you.
He’s been waiting for this moment for eleven years. Ever since Benjani moved to Manchester City from Portsmouth in 2008, Zimbabwe itself has waited for a talent to make the move to the Premier League and herald the beginning of a new era for football in the country. In many ways, it’s a new era for so many different things - relatively speaking the reign of Robert Mugabe has only just ended. Change and hope beckons new horizons for Zimbabwe and many hopes will be placed on its footballing future and characters like Marvelous Nakamba.
Nakamba was one member of a squad that failed at this season’s Africa Cup of Nations, with the nation at home expecting so much more than a group stage exit. Robson highlights Nakamba’s move to AVFC as a spark to reignite a passion for football in the country, one that the AFCON failed to provide. While footballers like Marshall Munetsi and Teenage Hadebe have secured big moves, Nakamba’s move to Aston Villa has become the stuff of legend. For many, this transfer puts Nakamba up there with players like Grobbelaar, Ndlovu and of course, Benjani. There is a production line of talent in Zimbabwe, waiting for a player like Marvelous to lead it to, hopefully for Robson, a glorious sporting future. Nakamba’s transfer, in Robson’s words, has rocked the nation.
Because of his move to Villa, Nakamba is on fairly big wages. This was echoed by Gregg Evans, formerly of BirminghamLive who noted that Villa needed to boost Nakamba’s pay to aid in a work permit application. Of course, this is big money back in Zimbabwe. Footballers in Zimbabwe do come often from poorer backgrounds. The money gained from a Premier League contract truly shows you how much of a big deal this really is and Marvelous, like others, will be supporting a family at home. In other countries on the continent, footballers are often expected to fill funding gaps left by governments. There’s a great deal of responsibility resting on Marvelous’ shoulders. Sharuko explained that sons in Zimbabwe do take a responsibility in supporting parents and the extended family - truly sharing the wealth - and that while is requires resources, Marvelous has been able to plan smartly to ensure that he and his family thrive after his eventual retirement - further explaining that Marvelous does not seek riches nor ‘big things’ - just success at football.
Nakamba is described by Sharuko as a model Zimbabwean. A disciplined worker that embodies the motto of Zimbabwe. A gentleman who fears god, who is tied to a code and remains respectful of others. Marvelous hails from Hwange, noted as a coal mining town with 20,000 residents, in the north-west of the country. To put it into perspective, it’s a massive move. Of course, Nakamba didn’t teleport from Hwange to Birmingham - it was a lifetime long journey via Bulawayo, Nancy, Arnhem and Bruges.
Bruges is of interest, as it’s where Marvelous left off at Club Brugge before joining Aston Villa. A summer-long shootout between the clubs (first reported by Sharuko’s newspaper) ensued between the clubs over a transfer fee before both put down their guns and went home.
It wasn’t as simple as a negotiation though.
After a move to Aston Villa apparently fell through in early July, Nakamba was advised not to report to training until a move was finalised - one way or another. This reported ‘strike’ saw many turn on him, including Villa fans who saw this as a sign of a ‘toxic attitude’. In reality, it happened because the player couldn’t afford to suffer an injury that would ruin a transfer. Sharuko told me, after conversation with Nakamba, that it wouldn’t have been such a big deal if he’d had to stay at Bruges, but one gets a feeling that the tabloid’s had decided to have their presence known. It wouldn’t have been easy at all for Marvelous to stay after the false strike stories. The tabloid gossip turned a routine transfer into a fair risk. His reputation had been dragged through the mud - wrongly. If the move to Villa failed, he’d have been left looking like the bad guy in front of the fans - and he’d still be in Bruges.
Nakamba was focused on proving himself at the highest level - and that meant a move to Aston Villa would be the best possible thing. Sharuko was keen to note that not one word had emerged - at all - from Club Brugge during this apparent ‘strike’. One only has to look back at the enormous financial responsibilities of Marvelous to consider the pressure he may have been under to force a move - and even then, the trusted word is that a strike simply didn’t occur. We’d have all benefited from stepping into Nakamba’s shoes though, as his move to Aston Villa after growing up in Hwange is truly the stuff of dreams.
Here’s the thing, the newspaper that Robson writes for, The Herald, was sort-of dismissed on social media when talking about Nakamba. The facts it has reported have been questioned. People demand proof from writers like Robson when they don’t ask it from the sporting authorities of our own country, England. In fact, people are more willing to trust ‘in the know’ twitter accounts then they are an actual journalist from Zimbabwe. If someone doesn’t put an actual face to their account, nor an actual name, they don’t have any actual responsibility for the things that they say. Twitter accounts like, say, ‘Agent Sam’ and ‘Big Jimmy’ are beginning to win people over by grifting online. What’s more, they are leading #FakeNews charges against the mainstream media - declaring their football news false in favour of the parroted reports of faceless ITK accounts in a stunning microcosm of the current world attitude towards reported news. Some refused to listen when the news was announced, then refused to listen when a ‘strike’ was reported on, then refused to listen when Nakamba’s reps said that a move was underway.
The lesson to learn from Nakamba’s transfer? That we must listen - we go to great lengths to sniff out lies online, while taking random information at face value. It’s a paradox. We should trust in journalists like Robson - people who truly know the subjects we discuss at length because we scanned Wikipedia. In an age where everyone is an expert, it’d do well to seek one out from time to time. Robson Sharuko’s conversation about the next great hope of football in Zimbabwe has shook me. The beating heart of Zimbabwe’s footballing hope has moved to the Villa, and regardless of the outcome - it’s a big deal.
We’d have known that a long time ago if we decided to open our ears.