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African Cup of Nations: 'Small baby' is hitting the big time for Zambia

After years of drifting from league to league, Collins Mbesuma has matured into a formidable striker, writes Ian Hawkey.
Collins Mbesuma, left, may be stocky, but the 28 year old has a lethal left foot and can be dangerous in the penalty area. Armando Franca / AP Photo
Collins Mbesuma, left, may be stocky, but the 28 year old has a lethal left foot and can be dangerous in the penalty area. Armando Franca / AP Photo

In the lead-up to the 29th African Cup of Nations, just after the champions, Zambia, had beaten South Africa in a friendly match in Johannesburg, their head coach Herve Renard hailed the striker who had scored the only goal of the match and explained how he needed a certain style of management to produce his best.

Collins Mbesuma, Renard told reporters, "is a good guy, but sometimes he is a small baby".

The South African journalists could barely stifle their giggles. Mbesuma is a leading figure in their local league, currently at his fifth different South African club, Orlando Pirates.

A small baby?

Mbesuma has indeed had episodes of immaturity in his career, but calling him "small" amused them.

As the Johannesburg red-top newspaper, Sunday World, put it, rather bluntly: "The soccer public have always regarded bulky Mbesuma as rotund, unfit and undisciplined."

Hefty might be a politer word. But, in the chequered career of the 28 year-old, there have been times when managers have worried about the weight carried on his sturdy frame. They have also recognised there is dynamite in his left foot, and, on form, Mbesuma's strength is a penalty area asset.

His powerful thighs can generate sufficiently sharp bursts of acceleration. There was nothing sluggish about the way Mbesuma tucked away the first goal of Zambia's defence of their title in the 1-1 draw with Ethiopia on Monday. He is expected to keep his place in Renard's starting line-up against Nigeria today.

That represents quite a comeback for man whose career has drifted since, in his early 20s, he was South African domestic football's most effective goalscorer and then Zambia's highest-profile export to Europe of the 21st century, when he joined Portsmouth, an English Premier League club at the time.

They went through various hoops to gain his work permit and would soon be wondering whether the efforts had been worth it. In England Mbesuma was only ever trusted to come on a substitute, and even then very occasionally.

He wandered, on loan to Maritimo in the Portuguese league, and an unfulfilling spell at Bursaspor in Turkey.

He then went on to collect on his career record a lengthy list of South African employers: He has now represented every member of the so-called Big Three in their league, historic giants Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates as well as free-spending Mamelodi Sundowns.

Plus there were stints with the historic Soweto club, Moroka Swallows and, last season, Golden Arrows of Durban.

With none of them would he ever threaten to match the tally of 25 goals in a season - in a 16-team league - he achieved at Kaizer Chiefs, but he has scored regularly with Pirates, whom he joined last July.

In the stuttering years, his place in the Zambia national team became less secure and, at the last Nations Cup, 12 months he was a marginal player for the champions, appearing for only 25 minutes in the group phase of the tournament.

Renard, though, believes in the striker's renaissance and sees a fit, motivated Mbesuma as a more potent weapon inside the opposition penalty area than the pacey Emmanuel Mayuka, of Southampton.

The French coach has been repeating almost a mantra how he feels Zambia are stronger now than they were when they won their first continental title, and would point to Mbesuma's regained status as one of the reasons why. He has pointedly emphasised Mbesuma's work rate: "He is scoring goals for his club and we have no incidents of indiscipline at all."

Aspects of his reputation are being mended.

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Published: January 24, 2013 04:00 AM

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