HARARE - Following Costa Nhamoinesu’s outstanding feat of winning the Czech Republic league title with his club Sparta Prague – leaving the defender from Masvingo on the verge of playing in the elite Uefa Champions League competition – contrasting stats have emerged about the number and identity of Zimbabwean players who have featured in world club football’s greatest competition.
So, who really has played in the Champions League before? The answer is THREE, that’s if you want to include both the old European Cup and modern-day Champions League, and TWO if you limit it to the present-day competition.
The old-timer and trendsetter was of course maverick goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar, who helped British giants Liverpool win the old European Cup back in 1984.
The first Zimbabwean to play in the present-day Champions League was in fact Norman Mapeza, but many football fans in this country are oblivious of this fact mainly because the European game was not as hugely popular here as it is nowadays, and satellite television was still a preserve of a few elite.
But the former Zimbabwe captain did feature five times in Group A of the Champions League for Turkish giants Galatasaray in the 1994-05 season, playing all 90 minutes as a right-back in five games against Barcelona, Manchester United and Swedish side IFK Göteborg.
After Galatasaray prevailed 9-1 on aggregate over Luxembourg outfit FC Avenir Beggen in the preliminary round, they opened in Group A in early September of 1994 at Camp Nou against a strong Barcelona side featuring such world-acclaimed players as Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov, Pep Guardiola and Romario.
Galatasaray lost 2-1 with Koeman and Guillerno Amor on target for the Catalan giants. They pulled one back through Kübilay Türkyilmaz.
On September 28, 1994, Galatasaray hosted Manchester United in Istanbul. The Red Devils’ side had such players as Old Trafford legends Peter Schmeichel, Roy Keane, Paul Ince, Ryan Giggs, Mark Hughes, Gary Pallister, Steven Bruce, and Lee Sharpe while youth graduates David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Gary Nevile started from the bench.
Mapeza and his defence held on to a nil all draw at the Ali Sami Yen Stadium.
Next up was IFK Göteborg in Gothenburg, where Magnus Erlingmark scored late in the second half to give the Swedes a 1-0 win, with Mapeza getting a yellow card in the first half.
On November 2 that same year, Erlingmark returned to haunt Galatasaray again with a late winner, registering another 1-0 win in Istanbul.
Few weeks later on November 23, Galatasaray would record a famous win over Barca in the reverse fixture courtesy of goals by club and Turkey legend Hakan Sukur and an own goal by goalkeeper Carles Busquets, father of current Barcelona star Sergio Busquets. Brazil icon Romario had given the Spanish giants a 1-0 first-half lead. Again, Mapeza was cautioned, by Italian referee Alfredo Trentalange.
That would mark Mapeza’s last Champions League experience.
On December 7 in 1994, the ex-Zimbabwe coach missed the trip to Old Trafford for the reverse fixture, where his team was walloped 4-0 by Alex Ferguson’s side through goals from Simon Davies, David Beckham, Roy Keane, Bulent Korkmaz.
It would take eight years for another Zimbabwean to taste Champions League football, and it was another ex-Warriors skipper, Benjani Mwaruwari.
After French side AJ Auxerre pulled through from the qualifying stage, they opened on September 14, 2002, in the first phase of the group stage against Dutch side PSV Eindhoven. They drew nil all at the Stade l'Abbé-Deschamps in Auxerre.
Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund were the other teams in the group.
On 25 September, 2002, at the Westfalenstadion in Germany, Benjani would make history by becoming the first ever Zimbabwean to score a Champions League goal.
It was in a losing cause though, as Jan Koller and Marcio Amoroso’s goals handed the Germans a 2-1 win.
On 2 October, Auxerre lost 1-0 to Arsenal at home courtesy of Gilberto Silva’s solitary strike.
In the return leg at Highbury in London on October 22, Auxerre posted a famous 2-1 win with goals from Olivier Kapo and Khalilou Fadiga while Nwanko Kanu pulled one back for the Londoners.
Arsenal legends David Seaman, Patrick Viera, Sol Campbell and Thierry Henry played on that night.
A 3-0 lost to PSV in Holland on October 30 meant Auxerre did not progress, despite another Benjani solitary strike to give the French side a 1-0 win over Dortmund on November in Auxerre.
If Costa Nhamoinesu play in the Champions League with Sparta Prague, he will become the FOURTH Zimbabwean to do so.