Walking through the hallowed corridors of Stamford Bridge — the home of English giants Chelsea Football Club in London — four weeks ago, 38-year- old Thulani “Biya” Ncube for a moment wished he had got the chance to play there during his football career. By Munyaradzi Madzokere
If it was not for a nagging knee injury that forced him to retire at the age of 29, maybe he would have broken into some of Europe’s big leagues. However, the fact that he is a legendary figure in Zimbabwe football gives him great comfort.
A rock-solid defender who loved to surge forward into enemy territory, and a great passer of the ball, Ncube carved his name as part of the all-conquering Highlanders Football Club team of the late 90s that won four consecutive Premier League titles.
Now based in Indianapolis in the United States of America where he is the junior football coach at MC United, he has other dreams to chase.
Standardsport caught up with the former defence stalwart from his US base as he reminisced on his footballing career, as well as sharing his ultimate goal.
“I was at Stamford Bridge recently and that place is very nice. I actually wished I had played there in my career, but sometimes these things happen for a reason,” said Ncube in an exclusive interview.
“For a person who did not have any particular goals other than to just enjoy football, I am happy with what I have achieved in football and if I didn’t get injured early, I would have achieved more,” he said.
The former Warriors captain also wore the armband for the Bosso squad of the late 90s, going into the new millennium that had the likes of Zenzo Moyo, Gift Lunga, Dazzy Kapenya, Siza Khoza, Richard Choruma and Joel Luphala, to name but a few.
His eight-year flirtation in the Highlanders first team, Bosso won an avalanche of titles, including four league championships, Independence Cup 2001 and 2002, Zifa Unity Cup 2001, Cosmos Challenge Cup 1998 and Dairibord Charity Shield 2001, among others.
Starting his football career as a promising 11-year-old goalkeeper for Cambridge United in Gwabalanda before moving to Zimbabwe Saints juniors and eventually Highlanders, Ncube vividly recalls his seniors debut for Bosso.
“My first appearance was against Blackpool. I cannot remember the exact year, but that time they had a good team. I remember I was marking Collins Kabote and it was not a good game for me. I was just 18 years old at that time,” he said.
But he would, however, grow to become undoubtedly one of the best defenders in the country, representing the Warriors at least 17 times.
“Playing for Zimbabwe meant a lot to me because I had the chance to play with people like Peter Ndlovu and Norman Mapeza — those two are among my top five best players to ever come out of Zimbabwe,” the former Inyanda High School student said.
What most people never got to know about Ncube is the fact that he always had a soft spot for Bosso’s bitter rivals, Dynamos, despite the fact that he perpetually put up a man of the match performance each time he played the team he secretly adored.
“When I was young, blue was my favourite colour, so it was only natural that I would support Dynamos and up to now, I still like Dynamos. Most of my best games were against Dynamos because I had good friends like Desmond Maringwa there, so when you lost such a game you would hear about it all week when we went to the Warriors camp,” he said.
After leaving Bosso in 2002, Biya joined the great trek to South Africa where he turned out for Ajax Cape Town before moving to American side Cape Cod Crusaders, then coached by Methembe Ndlovu, where he eventually retired due to a recurring knee injury.
Ncube was recently in the country where he was overseeing the fourth edition of the Thulani “Biya” Ncube and Friends junior football tournament in Bulawayo.
“I started the tournament four years ago just to give back to the community in which I grew up. There are a lot of people in that community who helped and supported me early in my career and I also want to do the same,” he said.
“My dream now is to have a very big football academy in Zimbabwe and help all those kids with talent. We have people like Alois Bunjira, Stanley Chirambadare and Isaac Mbedzi already doing a good job there.”
Another issue close to his heart that he shared is the current reputation of Bulawayo giants, Highlanders — the team that he represented with iconic distinction, but which has become a pale shadow of its former self.
“It’s very sad to see a big institution such a Highlanders struggling as they are doing. Personally, I think Bosso should go back to junior policy. When I started playing for the first team, most of the players I played with had graduated from the Under-18s and it worked in our favour,” he said.
Ncube reckons that Rahman Gumbo remains the best coach he has played under, while the late Willard Mashinkila Khumalo had always been his role model from the time he was a just a boy.
Born on September 21 1977 in Pelandaba, Bulawayo, Ncube — who has three children Ashley (13), Banele (11) and Mario (4) — is grateful to football for giving him a livelihood and for opening opportunities he may never have dreamt of.
If it was not for football, he might not have had the opportunity to meet his favourite coach Jose Mourinho while attending a coaching course at Stamford Bridge a few weeks ago.
While he does not remember where the name Biya came from, it’s a name that is greeted with nods of appreciation by every football fan that has had the privilege to see the big defender play.