By 2004 Rainford Kalaba had registered his name on the continental chart.
His performance at the Cosafa Under-20 where he won top scorer and player of the tournament earned him a place on the list for a CAF award that year.
He had scored some spectacular goals, those strikes made for television. They’re some of the best goals I have seen in my football life.
And deservedly so, the then unheralded Zambian teenager leaped into competition with the already established Benni McCarthy for the CAF Goal of the Year Award.
He may have lost the ultimate prize, but I still believe McCarthy’s goal did not come anywhere close to at least 3 of the 5 Kalaba scored at a regional junior national team tournament.
I have always thought the decision to award McCarthy was one of those bizarre CAF moments.
In sport, we call it a ‘home town decision’ – an undeserving reward for the winner that should not have been.
Known as ba Mupashi [the spirit for always giving his all] among his peers, Kalaba became an instant hit after the competition.
Big guns like Orlando Pirates, Kaizer Chiefs & Mamelodi Sundowns were already lining up for his signature.
His handlers had other plans.
I had the privilege to share the seat with him on a Combi [mini-bus] that ferried the team from Pretoria [where the tournament was played] to Johannesburg [where the teams and personnel were lodged] after a nine goal thriller which South Africa won 5-4 to dethrone the defending champions.
In our conversation, Kalaba spoke shyly of the limelight he was assuming.
Firmly holding on to a gigantic metal plate (I can’t remember if it was gold, silver or diamond), Kalaba said he would have been a lot happier if the junior Chipolopolo had defended the title. The plate was a reward for his exploits
It was a little difficult for the lad to celebrate his individual awards at the competition when the team had just been condemned to a silver medal by the hosts.
But it was still his moment, anyway.
The then Afrisport youngster had just graduated from the Zambia under-17 of 2003 under coach Simataa Simataa and team manager Nenani Banda.
He was now making a strong case for place in the senior national team.
Since Kalaba’s emergence at junior national level in 2003/04, Zambia has never looked back on ba Mupa. He has had roles in the under-23 and for the longest time the senior national team.
At the senior national team, Kalaba holds atleast 6 Africa Cup of Nations appearances including when Zambia won the title for the first time in 2012. The first appearance was in 2006 under Kalusha Bwalya as technical director.
His club honors, particularly at TP Mazembe, are well documented.
Why is Kalaba topical today?
When news broke that Kalaba had been summoned for next month’s World Cup qualifier against Equatorial Guinea, I paused for a moment.
Ba Mupa has not played for the national team in over two years; what would be the coach’s strategy to retain him now? My mind raced.
Not that he is a bad player. No. He once was a wonderkid and has served this nation extremely well.
At his peak, you’ll need him in your team on any day and wonders from his wicked foot orchestrated by his deceptive slow but unique run would prevail.
Although the source -TP Mazembe website (his club) of his inclusion in Chipolopolo was believable, I took the information with a pinch of doubt.
Further inquiry revealed he was not called and the team to be announced will certainly not include his name.
True to that curious inquiry, Kalaba was not on the 24 team list unveiled by coach Beston Chambeshi yesterday.
When he was not on the eventual list, many expressed surprise.
There’s been debate as to why he is not part of the team, some for and others against.
Many are demanding experience and blaming the lack of it for Chipolopolo dismal performance. Factor in three Afcon failed attempts
Well, it was unsurprising for me Kalaba was missing.
Let us face it, Kalaba’s national team shelf-life is beyond the expiry date.
Kudos to him that he is still making the team at TP Mazembe. Otherwise, he could be on his way to a coaching course by now.
He has played competitive football for close to 20 years and has won a litany of awards for both club and country.
It will be too much to ask for his presence at the national team.
For a midfielder who has invested 20 long years in football still in the game at this stage is remarkable, but showing up at the national team is stretching the player a little too far.
He is only human and answers to the natural process of growth. His energy of 20 or 10 years ago is not the same as is today.
I agree with observations that the transition from the 2012 winning team to what we currently have for a national team was mismanaged.
And, yes, we are currently in poor shape when it comes to football results.
But falling back on Kalaba for salvation is not the answer to our football woes.
The next time we should see Kalaba in national colors is when we stage an exhibition match in his honour.
Rather than debating his inclusion or lack thereof, we should be discussing how we can induct him in the Zambian football Hall of Fame while praying for a new chapter in his contribution to our football.
As for the national team selection, it’s about time we cast the net a little wider.
We must admit that football is an extremely short career; players comes and go, but the game goes on.
There’s another ba Mupa out there. Zambia is never short of talent. Until we properly look for another ba Mupa, I am afraid we’ll continue chasing shadows.
Thank you Rainford for your diligent service to this great country.