The death of Willard Mashinkila Khumalo has been described as a great loss to football whose void will be difficult to fill. Khumalo died at around 1:00AM yesterday at the United Bulawayo Hospitals after a long battle with diabetes. He was 49 year old.
An emotional former Highlanders coach Barry Daka, who took over from Scotsman Bobby Clark in the early 1980s, said he was still trying to come to terms with the passing on of one of the greatest players to ever don the black and white Bosso jersey.
“Willard was natural, a rare football talent who took control of the midfield like a veteran and as coaches we would enjoy watching him doing his thing on the pitch. You know that boy was a marvel to watch in action,” said Daka.
“Willard was one of the players promoted in the early 80s from our youth side known as Liverpool, which was coached by Ali ‘Baba’ Dube. They were brilliant boys really.
“The senior team was not performing well so it was agreed that we promote our juniors into the first team. A bulk of them were Under-18 and they did very well. We went on to win many trophies and Willard was key in those victories,” Daka said.
Khumalo and the other youngsters were then fused with experienced players such as Douglas Mloyi, the late Titus Majola, Richard Ndlovu, Augustine Lunga, the late Fanuel Ncube and Madinda Ndlovu, among another great crop of players to play for Amahlolanyama.
Daka said even up to now, he was yet to witness anything like what Khumalo did on the pitch from the present crop of players.
“I always ask myself whether we will ever get another Willard Khumalo. People might say I’m saying this because he is no more, but those that watched him during his heydays will totally agree with me. He was so incredibly marvellous and whenever he touched the ball, the crowd would scream Ndunaaa or MaWii. We don’t have such players anymore,” he said.
Daka said it was sad that Khumalo passed away before he could see his son mature into a total footballer. Khumalo’s son, Dumo, plays for Mzilikazi High School’s Under-17 football team.
Daka said it did not surprise them when national team coaches picked Khumalo for national duty, right from the Under-20 to the senior national squad.
Cosmos Zulu, who was Clark’s assistant at Highlanders when Khumalo burst into the first team, also expressed his sadness at the passing away of Khumalo.
“I knew that boy for almost 44 years and his death has left me devastated. He had been unwell for some time and I would call him at night just to find out how he was coping and he would tell me ‘topi umzimba uyala’. Willard made some of us to be viewed as good coaches because of his talent on the pitch. May his soul rest in peace,” said Zulu.
The man Khumalo replaced in the Bosso midfield, Ernest ‘Maphepha’ Sibanda, who is also a former Highlanders chairman, said his death had robbed the country of a football icon who still had a lot to offer to football.
“When he came into the first team, I had been transferred to Harare where I joined Caps United, but even then, I could clearly see that it was a blessing in disguise for me because ngangizezwa ngebhentshi. The man was talented. Football has really been the biggest loser,” said Sibanda.
Former teammate Tobias Mudyambanje described Khumalo as a jovial person, who never begrudged anyone.
“During our school days, we were great rivals as he was at Mzilikazi Primary School while I was at Lozikeyi Primary, but we later became teammates at Highlanders. Never a person to hold a grudge, Willard was a funny person with lots of jokes during camp,” said Mudyambanje.
“We used to call them the Bushwackers when he was with his pal, the late Mercedes Rambo Sibanda – may his soul rest in peace. Personally I think he has truly rested,” he said.
Omega Sibanda, who was Khumalo’s manager before being elected Zifa vice-president, said it was hard to believe that the nation had lost a legend of Khumalo’s stature.
Nicknamed Mawii or Nduna by the Highlanders fans, Khumalo broke into the Highlanders first team in 1983 when then boss Clark promoted him with the likes of Netsai Super Moyo, Summer Ncube, Francis Muringayi and Abraham Senda.
His ball control, vision and passing were second to none. Khumalo would singlehandedly win matches, an attribute lacking in the present crop of Bosso players.
Barbourfields Stadium would reverberate with chants of “Mawiii” or “Ndunaa” whenever he was in possession of the ball, and that acknowledgement and urging by the fans drove him to conjure up some attacks that brought memorable victories to Bosso.
The present crop of Bosso players lack the awe that Khumalo struck into his opponents’ on a consistent basis. It was almost a given that Khumalo would control the midfield and drive Bosso to victory unlike today when the team fears playing at Barbourfields Stadium. He was probably the greatest shielder of the ball and used his bulky frame to hold the ball making it difficult for opponents to dispossess him.
Khumalo understood what it meant to wear Bosso’s black and white jersey, unlike today’s players, who half the time appear confused and run aimlessly throughout a match.
Had they watched Khumalo in action, they would understand the worth of the Bosso jersey and learn a thing or two about confidence, dedication and focus, which they are sadly lacking.