Saturday, 5 May 2012

Highlanders rekindle fond memories
Mapuranga is a player whose reputation is written in stone. Strong as an ox with dexterity in defence that makes a mockery of his age. Highlanders have not conceded many goals and it is because of him. If Highlanders lift the league trophy no one will deserve more credit than Mapuranga.
SO far it has been nothing but a stroll in the park on a sunny day.
Many believe that the weather will change sooner or later. That Highlanders Football Club will be brought back to earth.
But chances are also high that that might not happen. Highlanders Football Club are third on the log after four league games, with a game in hand. They have scored an impressive 13 goals in the process and conceded only five to suggest, even validate, that the old balance of power has been restored.
At first it was easy to dismiss the team’s high scoring victories over Blue Rangers and Hardbody. When they drew one-all with Buffaloes in Mutare many were quick to suggest that the slide from high to low had began. How wrong they were.
Away to FC Platinum on Tuesday, many fancied a loss for Highlanders. The bookmakers that had a heart took pity on Highlanders and turned away those who put their money on Bosso. How wrong they all were. Highlanders did not receive the hiding that was expected. They did not survive a siege. They did not hang on for dear life. They came out swinging and three telling punches landed on FC Platinum. FC Platinum could only achieve one to make the outcome respectable. It all ended 1-3.
Meanwhile, all over the country thousands were surprised and tried to fathom what happened at Mandava Stadium. They also tried to work out what is happening at Highlanders’ training sessions. No one expected Bosso to come out this strong and no one expected them to put the fear of God in all the teams in the league. But they have done so.
Highlanders are the team that did not buy players because they could not afford to; the club whose budget for the whole year is not even a tenth of what FC Platinum will spend and a team that recruited players that had been offloaded by other teams.
It has been said and in a way it might sound true that Highlanders are a team made up of rejects. A motley crew of has-beens and never-have-beens, vaguely familiar faces from a distant and not especially glorious past, thrown together on the cheap for one last job, the most audacious heist of them all, and the coveted Premier Soccer League title.          
Milton Ncube, who has scored three goals and as many assists, was dumped in the scrap heap by Motor Action who had also picked him up from Dynamos’ dustbin. Bhekimpilo Ncube was deemed excess baggage at FC Platinum while Mthulisi Maphosa was fired for “alleged’’ indiscipline. Beavan Chikaka did not see game time at Dynamos in 2010,while the following year he moved to Caps United were he failed to break into the team. Masimba Mambare joined in for free after his contract at Motor Action expired.
Shabanie Mine are at the summit of the log followed by Chicken Inn. Highlanders might be third but they are ahead of them having played a game less and are only a point behind. Dynamos have won three and lost one and have one game in hand. But Highlanders are ahead of them too. Dynamos have lost a match; the only stain on Bosso’s record is a draw. The Bulawayo side is also ahead of Motor Action who have 10 points like Highlanders. But Highlanders have a better goal difference, have played a game less and have not lost a match.
In fact Highlanders are ahead of everyone. If they play their game in hand and win they will be on top of the log. Since 2006 this has never happened.
Highlanders started the league with a win and now they can’t stop.
This is a team that was built with so-called faulty material. Highlanders picked what was left after other clubs had already picked what they wanted. No wonder the media and neutrals believe that Highlanders had no chance of winning the league title.
Maybe that is the reason behind their success. The fact that they are underestimated and dismissed means they play with a certain freedom that surprises and puts the opposition on the back foot. Maybe the noise about them being average has made them conscious of their limitations and forced them to play to their strengths.
Supremely well organised, defensive, swift on the break, possessive on the ball and happy to be on the back foot when it suits, there are no pretences about this side. And while they might slip back down the table this certainly cannot be dismissed as a fluke.
They have created a kind of can-they-really-do it fascination; they are a constant cliff-hanger, leaving everyone waiting for the next match. People now actually care and those that don’t pretend they do. For a team that no longer mattered in its own city, this is quite something.
The work of Kelvin Kaindu cannot be frowned upon. He has employed a clever psychological work ethic to bring out the best out of the players. He has taken a more tactful role, convincing the players that it is about them and that they are actually pretty good at football. He has been even closer to the players than his predecessor, Mkuphali Masuku.
Another man who is not but should be credited with Highlanders impressive run is defender Innocent Mapuranga. At 34, Mapuranga is Highlanders’ leader: intelligent, confident, committed and utterly unpretentious, despite becoming an idol to team-mates and fans - the antihero who embodies the image of this team. Highlanders’ fans believe that he is the best defender in Zimbabwe. Although this is partly tongue in cheek, it’s not wide off the mark. 
Mapuranga is a player whose reputation is written in stone. Strong as an ox with dexterity in defence that makes a mockery of his age. Highlanders have not conceded many goals and it is because of him. If Highlanders lift the league trophy no one will deserve more credit than Mapuranga.
And if they continue on this vein that will most likely happen. And very soon the vuvuzelas that had been shelved will be dusted and blown until the throats give out. Those who do not support Highlanders will complain about noise pollution. The song wakhala umantengwane will assume its really meaning again. The Highlanders’ once famous road shows will return. Each and every terrace at Babourfields Stadium will have a bum on it.
Everyone knew that this revival would come and Highlanders’ fans knew that better than anyone else; it should not have taken this long. So now that it has arrived, it has had even more of an impact. It took six years for the second most successful team in Zimbabwe to be reborn.
But it is not just the rebirth that has impressed - it is the manner of the regeneration, the maturity of it. Highlanders may win or fail to win the title in November, but in truth they don’t need to. The journey back from the wilderness has been concluded. If they maintain the team they have and bloody it with a few additions, there will be plenty of titles.

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