Phiri's rise to stardom

HARARE - A mysterious injury condemned Rapheal Phiri to bird slinging before a chance to join Rio Tinto ignited a career that would scale from the mining town of Kadoma right through the glitzy avenues of the State House.

As a sprightly teenager Phiri had made a name for himself turning out for lower division sides Hunyani Paper Mills and Marondera’s Proton Stars before injury came knocking in 1975.

Phiri assumed all was lost.

But unbeknown to him, he would one day get back between the sticks for the pioneering Zimbabwe national football team and bask in the company of then Prime Minister Robert Mugabe in 1980.

“I hung my boots that year. I ended up hunting birds with my wife. I didn’t think I would play again because it was an injury I could not understand,” Phiri tells the Daily News.

“The X-rays showed that I was okay but I could neither seat nor run. But thank God for a gentleman who kept encouraging me. After almost a year out, I made up my mind to return.

“Whilst at Proton Stars I had played against Rio Tinto who were coached by John Rugg (late) it was a Castle Cup match. We lost 4-2 but I was outstanding in goals.

“Rugg pursued me after that match but I didn’t want to live Marondera. Awkwardly that is also the same time I got injured. So the 1976 season finished without me playing. But Rugg kept sending me telegrams he wanted me to join Rio Tinto.

“At the end of that year I made up my mind. I started light training and joined Rio Tinto the same year that Ephert Lungu arrived at the club.

“For the number one spot it was a stiff competition because Laban Kandi was also in top form.  And he would always play ahead of me because of his experience, him being a former Dynamos player and I was just coming from Division One.

“It took me six months to get a starting berth. I said to myself ‘if I just get a chance I won’t let go.’

“I was impressing at training and many players wondered why I was not getting a chance. So I ended up getting a chance not because the coach felt I deserved it but because he wanted to prove a point that I was not ready.

“My first game in goals for Rio would be against Zisco Steel. Zisco were no small team. It was a tough game. I played very well, we won 1-0. That would be the beginning. From then I never sat on the bench.

“I remember being so impressive that after only my first six games I was picked into the national team. We were supposed to play SA but it wasn’t to be because of the prevailing politics of the day. It was disappointing that was going to be my first experience in an airplane.”

Phiri would remain in the national team at first sharing the goalkeeping responsibilities with Mike Muhlanga (late) and Frank Mukanga.

He would later share the number one spot with Bruce Grobbelaar and then rising star Japhet “Shortcat” M’parutsa.

Of his wide ranging experiences with the Warriors, Phiri says a State House visit by the Warriors at the turn of independence ranks as one of his most iconic moments of his career.

“In that meeting I remember the president telling us ‘Taipedza one week ne shereni mumaoko chete saka imi shingai murwire nyika yenyu.’ That was to make us remain steadfast regardless of the lack of monetary incentives.  And honestly we battled like Warriors every time we were on the pitch,” Phiri says.

That Warriors side, coached by Rugg, however, never really made it as far as big tournament qualification was concerned.

But the stars of that team like Shackman “Mr Goals” Tauro, David ‘Yogi” Mandigora, Douglas ‘British” Mloyi, amongst others, left an indelible mark on the fans who witnessed them in full flight.

“When I walk in the streets some people say we should be treated like war veterans, but that’s how they think we were just playing for our country,” Phiri says.

The 61-year-old would go on to have stints with Dairiboard before taking up coaching in the early 90s.

He went on to take charge of Rio Tinto who by then were christened Eifel Flats after the mining company pulled the plug on sponsoring the team.

It would be a roller coaster coaching experience for the Kadoma raised former goalie who survived with the team both in the top flight league and lower division.

He followed that up with a stint with Lancashire Steel and Shabanie Mine.

He took his coaching badges to Bostwana, leading the likes of Botswana Union, Flamingo, Santos and Ecco City Green.

At the moment, the father of five who is still married to his childhood sweetheart is back to where it all began coaching youngsters at the community team of Eifel Flats.

“I have been trying to put back Eifel Flats to where it was but lack of sponsorship has been our biggest drawback,” Phiri says.

“We are Division Two sadly there is no sponsorship, nothing. We have juniors from Under-10 to Under-17. We don’t have incentives but we won’t give up. We will keep fighting,” he adds.

The unassuming Phiri says he has enjoyed everything football has given him but still felt he had more to give to a sport that brought him fame.

“If we are to talk of the players that came through my hands we would need the whole day. The likes of Isaac Masame, Herbert Dick, Daniel Zokoto, Tafadzwa Mombeshora and Saidi Saidi,” he says.

“I don’t want anything in return because I don’t depend on soccer. But my hope is to just build these youngsters. Take them off the streets and they rise to where we were even though we never made money like they are doing today.”

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