Mukuna's long road to the top

HARARE - Making decisions in fractions of a second in front of ambitious players and coaches surrounded by overzealous thousands of screaming fans is all part of the referee’s lonely profession.

There are very few jobs where one has to deal with the collective rage of thousands of people at once, with routine, where your mistakes are endlessly analysed in the media.

Keeping pace with players sometimes half their age, make split-second judgment calls and brush off insults from hostile fans all sums up the nature of their job.

To stay within 20 yards of the ball at all times, referees must run about eight to 10 miles per match; even more ground than most of the players cover.

As a result, Fifa requires candidates for the job to pass a fitness test in which they must run six 40-meter sprints in six seconds or less apiece and finish 10 laps around a 400 metre track with an average running pace of 5:20 per mile.

The man with the whistle has the final say in extreme cases deciding the outcome of every soccer match.

Wilfred Mukuna one of the country’s most famous referee, reveals how a referee can win the respect of the players and explains what made him one the best match officials to ever grace the land.

“Basically it happened by chance that I become a referee. Why am I saying so is because I was once involved in sport broadcasting (Rhodesian Broadcasting Corporation) with the likes Tony Ballantine and David Legg,” recalls Mukuna.

“And because I was advertising for a certain company; I would come in and work with these guys and when they were not available I would come and do interviews with the players.

“This was in 1978 and that’s how I get to like football because at school I was a swimmer. I then started getting involved in boozers’ football. It happens one day when we were watching a friendly match at Raylton and I was with Felix (Tangawarima).

“We saw what we thought was not good refereeing and we started complaining and sitting next to us was Nkosana Majoni (late) and he said ‘you guys are busy criticising the referee, can you do better?’”

“So that’s how we started me and my good friend Felix.”

Mukuna showed such natural aptitude for refereeing, and such enjoyment of it, that he soon took the formal refereeing examinations. 

He rose through the ranks, refereeing in the social football matches and sometimes division three and four games where he distinguished himself as a reliable match official.

“In 1987 it happened by coincidence that there was a team coming from Zambia (Mufulira Wanderers). There were playing friendlies here,” he says.

“And prior to that match Highlanders had played CAPS United at Rufaro the previous day and there was chaos because the referee did not handle the match well.

“Then, Fifa referee called John Nkathazo was supposed to handle the friendly match between Wanderers and Highlanders at the National Sports Stadium but it seemed he did not come prepared for the game and he excused himself for the match.

“I was the first assistant with Felix the second and I ended up officiating that match and that marked my first international friendly. And that was a very good match and from there things started happening.”

It was not long before Mukuna powered his way to the top and it was not a surprise that he won the Referee of the Year award in his debut year officiating in the top flight football in 1988 to become the youngest referee to win that award.

Mukuna has an innate toughness that allowed him to control matches with natural authority which quickly saw him called to handle international matches.

Whereas a bad call early in a basketball game is usually forgotten since the victimised team still has many chances to overcome it, it’s not always the case in football.

“Basically I would say I was one bold man maybe slightly stubborn; should I put it that way. I thought there was nothing which was insurmountable. I believed everything could be tackled,” he says.

“I was physically fit because we used to push each other me and Felix. My mental strength was good. And the other thing refereeing is a team work and we get a lot of help from Nelson Chirwa (late).

“If you make a mistake in a match; you are not supposed to think about that to try and compensate rather psyche up yourself to do well. You need to have a strong character and move forward.

“I never tolerated nonsense and on record I splashed red cards to players like Madinda Ndlovu, Edward Katsvere and you find I had no problems with players.

“My first international match outside the country was in Swaziland against Tanzania; a World Cup qualifier match and I was the second assistant. It was something else; the experience was electrifying.”

Between 1988 and 2001 before he hang up his boots Mukuna officiated more than 60 international matches winning the country’s referee of the year award twice and was runner up six times.

Some of the matches that Mukuna officiated include 1990 Cecafa final in Zanzibar and the Zambia against Gabon Afcon qualifier in Lusaka (soon after the Zambian team perished in an air crash disaster in Gabon).

But Mukuna had his challenges too.

“Match fixing is there but if you want to become a top referee you have to remain professional. If you go out there to officiate, people they do things to try and make you influence the outcome of the matches,” he says.

“These are some of the things that make it difficult for referees but as I said before your mentality needs to be strong.”

Born 58 years ago Mukuna is now a Caf Match Commissioner and is also working as property consultant.

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