HARARE - For Elvis Meleka, football offers a haven of hope beyond the heartache of family misfortune, an opportunity to enjoy a touch of escapism from those emotional wounds.
Some of the images that linger in Meleka’s memories are not that pleasant.
Long before he started playing in Zimbabwe’s top-flight football league, Meleka learned to turn tragedy into the driving inspiration of his career.
At 12, his father died. Two years later, his mother would also depart.
And at 14, the second loss happened and he remembers both heartbreaks with painful clarity.
Worse, the two incidents cruelly stole the idolised world of childhood from him.
Suddenly, what had been a happy, jovial and normal young boy, he had to turn into a guardian for his young sibling Emmanuel, four years his junior.
Football, a sport which ran through his veins, naturally became his only source of hope.
Apart from the anticipated financial gains, Meleka knew football offered him the opportunity to learn to live as an adult, to understand that what is lost is lost, basically and to make the best out of his adulthood.
His football skills earned him a place at the famed Agatha Sheneti Soccer Academy, and later at Lord Malvern High School, itself known to churn out a good crop of footballers for the country.
Alongside such equally talented players like Onismor Bhasera, Edward “Duduza” Sadomba and Pride “Predator” Tafirenyika, Meleka was a rising starlet in Zimbabwean football.
It seemed his life was on the mend.
“I was sort of living alone, but both my sisters were married but they would come and check up on us. But Agatha was providing for everything,” Meleka recalls.
And Meleka was an early bloomer. Following eye-catching performances during a youth tournament in Sweden, then aged 15, Meleka attracted interest from American club Potomic Bombers.
The Major Soccer League (MLS) second-tier club took him on board for six months, where he was enrolled into a school and trained after studies.
“I remember, I had a couple of good games over that side and there were plans to change my citizenship. I was really willing to go through with it. I had a family there that was looking after me,” he says.
“So when my six months were up, I returned home and thought Regis Dzenga, who was the owner of the academy, would take care of it. It was just supposed to be coming back home, fix my visa and go back to finalise papers.
“But I suppose a lot of things happened. I returned in 2002 and I was just taken back into the Zimbabwean system.
“I represented Lord Malvern at the Coca Cola tournament that year and after that we went to Zambia for another tournament. I didn’t rest.
“So at the end, I asked Regis of my position but he just said he would work on it. The guys in the States sent me another ticket but unfortunately my visa application was rejected.
“But I kept communicating with the family that I had been staying with. They were sending me $300 each month, to assist me and my young brother.”
“On the football front, I just had to accept that things had happened that way. I continued my education while playing in Division Two for Harare United.”
Having started to cope with the pain of losing his parents — failure to move into the United States professional circuit was another blow Meleka had to take.
But again, he had to pick the pieces and soldier on.
He would later be loaned out by Harare United in 2003 to Premiership side Monomotapa.
In 2008, he joined Shooting Stars, helping them to win the Independence Trophy under the guidance of Mike Madzivanyika and Partson Ndabambi.
He enjoyed a stellar season, earning himself Zimbabwe Under-20 call-ups as well as cameo national team roles under the Warriors’ Brazilian coach Valinhos.
“I spent almost three years playing in the Under-20 side after my first call-up at 17. We did well in the Zone VI and Cosafa games before captaining the side in 2005,” he says.
After stints with Gunners, he was lured to Botswana side Mochudi Centre Chiefs in 2011 by Zimbabwean coach Madinda Ndlovu together with compatriot Arnold Chaka.
Meleka was the mainstay of Chiefs during their back-to-back league title triumphs under Ndlovu, winning the Botswana League Player of the Season award in the 2012-13 season.
The Zimbabwean’s contract would expire the following season amid uncertainty at the Gaborone-based club.
“The guy who wanted to sponsor the team was now taxing players, so housing allowances and salaries were now little,” he says.
“I made the decision to move on. That’s how I moved to ZPC Kariba mid-June in 2014 under Saul Chaminuka. We came close to winning the title but lost at the very end.
“I went back to Botswana the following year, where I was turning out for BMC on a six-month contract and returned home when the contract expired.”
Turning 30 this year, Meleka believes his best days are still ahead of him.
“I think this year will be an exciting season, teams don’t know what each team is planning behind the scenes. Yes, others may make noise during the transfer window but I bet you the teams that are quiet will surprise you,” he says.
Looking back, the ZPC Kariba midfielder still sees the American Dream and what could have been still lingers in his memory.
But having played in the African Champions League, crowned the finest footballer in a foreign league, represented his country on a few occasions, Meleka is content.
“I’m just hoping to make the best this season. It’s unfortunate that sometimes experienced players are overlooked but if teams find the right balance with youth and experience they will go far.”
The 2016, season also gives him an opportunity to play against his young brother Emmanuel, who is on the books of newly-promoted side Mutare City Rovers.