Joel Bwalya, Kalusha’s often forgotten brother

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Football is rich with family affairs and the story is no different with Joel Bwalya who diligently went about his long Zambia football career in the shadow of his more famous brother Kalusha Bwalya.

Joel, remains active in football too, and is currently an assistant coach at Zambia top club Zanaco after earning his coaching the hard way in the lower leagues with Luanshya Hotspurs and Luanshya United, one of Zambia’s oldest teams.

In 2017, Joel joined top club Red Arrows as an Assistant Coach and later took up the managerial role at Zambia’s 1977 CAF Cup Winners’ Cup representatives, Ndola United, whom he left in January for Zanaco in the midst of a top three promotion battle in division three before Covid-19 halted the season.    

CAFOnline.com caught up with the unsung ex-Chipolopolo midfielder for a comprehensive interview about his family, playing career amongst others.

CAFOnline.com: What are your early memories of the game?

Joel Bwalya: Growing up in Mufulira (a town in the Zambian Copperbelt Province), my father Benjamin Bwalya was an official at Mufulira Blackpool. My elder brothers Benjamin (deceased) and Kalusha always dragged me along to watch the great Alex Chola and Simon Kaushi. The interest started from there, and Benjamin and Kalusha started their careers at Blackpool, so we would also go and watch them. It inspired me and I started playing with friends in any space we would find in the neighborhood.

And your football career, when did it start?

I started in the amateur leagues at Mufulira Police in 1985, I played there for one year and then in 1986, I was drafted into the Mufulira Wanderers Youth team. At the time, my brothers (Benjamin and Kalusha) had crossed over from Blackpool to Wanderers because every player in Mufulira wanted to play for the biggest team in town. 

At Wanderers youth team, I met future Zambia internationals Harrison 'Wawa' Chongo and Tennant Chilumba as well as goalkeeper Joseph Kabungo, now a medical doctor and a member of the CAF Medical Committee. 

Towards mid-1987, I was probable the first of the reserves to break into the main Wanderers team and was training with the likes of Efford Chabala, Ashios Melu, Philemon Mulala and Fredrick Kashimoto. It was massive for a young kid to be amongst Wanderers greats and I enjoyed that. I remember my first game was a friendly against Mutondo Stars in Kitwe, it was an awesome moment that I will never forget wearing the green shirt of Wanderers playing with and against some of the greatest men in Zambian football.

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What honours did you win with Wanderers?

The biggest moment was winning the 1988 Independence Cup beating Roan United 3-0 in the final in Lusaka. And playing under a coach as good as Samuel ‘Zoom’ Ndhlovu and hearing him telling you that ‘you have the feeling, you have the technique, all that you have to do is work hard and you can be an awesome player’ is all the motivation you needed to go forward.

The name Samuel 'Zoom' Ndhlovu is legendary and synonymous with Zambian football, what kind of a person was he?

A legend, larger than life character, who never said much. You could feel his presence when he walked in. Everything ‘Zoom’ said about football was the gospel. A lot of players speak highly of him. I am blessed I went through his hands all the way to the national team. He is the kind of coach who would give you a picture of every situation. Most of the players who passed through him at Wanderers went on to be coaches in their own right because the philosophy of coaching was put into them early as players.

When was your big break in the junior national teams?

In 1988, I was part of the Zambia for the qualifiers of the 1989 FIFA U-16 Championship, under the tutelage of the late Willie Phiri and Josphat Mutetwa. The team also comprised of some players who passed away in the 1993 Gabon crash like Winter Mumba, Robert Watyakeni who was our captain, Numba Mwila and Patrick 'Bomber ‘Banda. We also had Happy Sichikolo and Collins Sichande from Profund Warriors. In our first game of the qualifiers, we beat Mauritius away 5-1, Patrick (Banda) scored three goals and I scored two. In the return home game, we won 9-0, I scored four and Patrick scored three times. Our opponent in the final round was Nigeria, and they had the likes of Daniel Amokachi, Victor Ikpeba amongst others. Till date, Amokachi and Sunday Oliseh always ask ‘where is Happy Sichikolo?’ He (Happy) gave them a lot of hell in Bauchi. We graduated to the U-20 and went to 1991 African Youth Championship in Egypt with Robert Watyakeni (who also died in the Gabon Air Crash), who was the captain yet again. Dennis Lota also joined the team. We placed fourth at the tournament, losing 2-0 to Ghana in the third-place match.

"Representing your national team at 18 is every player’s dream, and seeing all these great African players like Jules Bocande (Senegal), Stephen Tataw and Thomas Nkono (both Cameroon) and Rabah Madjer (Algeria) was an awesome experience," Joel Bwalya

And your senior Zambia career…

After Zambia returned from the famous performance at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, I was one of five players invited to train with the team in 1989 when a combined list of 60 was made for 1990 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers and 1989 CECAFA Cup outing. When the CECAFA was cancelled, the focus was shifted to the AFCON. I kept grinding to be amongst the best under ‘Zoom’ Ndhlovu and I was fortunate together with my Wanderers club mate Philemon Chisala to make the final 22 man squad. We went for a pre-tournament camp in India and later flew to Algeria via Rome.

How was your first experience of the big stage in Algeria?

Unbelievable! Before departing Zambia, we were told Kalusha and Charles Musonda (both in Europe at the time) would join us i Algeria. Upon arriving in Algeria, the team received sad news both will miss the tournament due to injuries. We had Lucky Msiska and Stone Nyirenda joining from Belgium, and Jeff Mulenga from Switzerland. However, Webby Chikabala (deceased) who was at local club Chambishi rose to the occasion as we placed third.

Representing your national team at 18 is every player’s dream, and seeing all these great African players like Jules Bocande (Senegal), Stephen Tataw and Thomas Nkono (both Cameroon) and Rabah Madjer (Algeria) was an awesome experience. I was on the bench for all the games except the semifinal against Nigeria. Eventually, I made my debut in the bronze match against Senegal which we won 1-0 with Webster Chikabala scoring the only goal. It was an honour to be part of Zambia's first podium finish since 1982 (also bronze), and humbling to return home with a medal and to a heroes welcome.

How did you find yourself in Europe?

Whilst in Egypt for the 1991 African Youth Championship, an agent representing Swiss side Grasshoppers contacted me. Negotiation between them and Wanderers started upon our return from Egypt. Unknown to me, there was also an offer from Cercle Brugge in Belgium where Kalusha and Charles Musonda had played. Grasshoppers wanted an outright deal while Cercle offered me a three-month trial. After a friendly against Kitwe United, our manager then, an Englishman Beardsley, sat me down to discuss the two options and advised I go to Belgium where they were familiar with Zambian players because my brother (Kalusha) had been there and it would be easier to adopt.

And how did the trials go?

I left in the summer of 1991 and was staying with a Belgian family. I was sent to train with the reserves for the next three months. Three days after I arrived, I played my first friendly on a Wednesday, and they took me off at halftime and told me they had seen enough. I was concerned because I was a bit heavy when I arrived in Belgium but my handlers told me they were impressed and I was told to come to the office on a Friday and quickly signed a four-year deal. These are things you dream about as a kid… to be a professional. 

How much pressure was there to emulate two successful Zambians Charles Musonda and Kalusha at Cercle Brugge?

The good thing was that the coaches and officials after seeing me play said ‘you are different from Kalusha and Charles, you can use both feet. Kalusha uses his left; and you are faster than Charly who is an excellent midfielder and plays in almost slow motion.’ It meant I didn’t have to be Kalusha or Charles.

Meanwhile, earlier as an amateur, I also thought independently about being this number 10, imagining myself playing with two good feet and a good football brain but there was always that feeling of Kalusha and Charly played in this position but I told myself I was going to be my own man.

It was also good to hear when Kalusha went there for the club’s 100th anniversary that they asked about me and when he got back he told me ‘I wonder what you left there because they still speak highly of you’.

The first two years in Belgium were difficult because I was young man in a foreign land. I could only get game time in the reserves and Cup games. Later, I was loaned out in 94 for two years to KRC Harelbeke. I had two fantastic seasons there and was voted the best foreign player in Division One. The highlight was reaching the semifinals of the Belgium Cup where I crossed swords with Charles Musonda's Anderlecht. We lost on penalties and that’s when I proved myself. Charles giggled in the tunnel as we lined up for the first half saying ‘I see you are doing well. Congratulations! This is the big stage and to be here means you are doing well’.

Following my exploits, Harelbeke wanted to make my loan permanent, but Cercle refused. I returned to Cercle to find a new coach who believed in my abilities. I settled and played the best five years of my career there. I treasure those moments because I became dependable, and every time I went on Zambia duty, it was always difficult for them to release me. 

What are your reflections on the 1993 Gabon crash?

I was at home in Belgium when I got a call because you always tracked what Chipolopolo were doing. I was aware that they had first an AFCON away game against Mauritius that weekend and then a FIFA World Cup game in Senegal the next weekend. The team won 3-0 against Mauritius via a Kelvin Mutale hat-trick, a guy that I had never seen play and I was dying to train with. The team gets back from Mauritius preparing to go to Senegal and you are hoping that the invitation will come but it never does and then the other thing you hear is there is a problem with the plane and that it is missing and lost on the radar. The next day it was confirmed there were no survivors. I still have a Belgium newspaper cutting with the headline "Zambia Dies: Minus Kalusha, Musonda and Bwalya".

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How was the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia?  

We had an all-West African cast in the group stage namely Sierra Leone, Senegal and Cote d'Ivoire, and we sailed through unbeaten in the group stage with two wins and a draw, beating Senegal 1-0 at the quarters, to the semifinals where we beat Mali 4-0. Mali was no pushovers after they had beaten host Tunisia 2-0 in the opening match. Then we played Nigeria in the final. The two teams were staying in the same hotel in Tunis and so they had to change the dining schedule. Prior to the semifinals, we were eating at the same time but when we reached the final, the teams had to go in turns.

Amokachi has been my friend from the U-16 qualifiers in Bauchi, and we were together at AFCON 1990. Also, in Belgium, we were based in the same town – he played for Club Brugge at the time and I was with Cercle Brugge. 

Then came the match day, with Bobby Charlton, Michel Platini and Pele in attendance, we scored first through Elijah Litana but before we got in the groove, Emmanuel Amuneke equalized before halftime and Amuneke scored again in the second half.

It was a wet pitch after it rained all night, but no excuse, we lost 2-1, downcast and defeated. Our coach Ian Porterfield consoled us with the words “you were fantastic boys and you have to hold yourselves high because nobody gave you a chance before you came here after what happened a year ago following the crash". Shockingly, we returned to a heroes welcome at the airport in Lusaka and we went directly to the stadium which was packed like there was going to be a big game and the late President Frederick Chiluba lifted us up with his speech.

Now to your last AFCON in 1996 that is for many, also the beginning of the end of that Chipolopolo fairy tale for many years to come until 2010?  

We started preparing for AFCON 96 at home in Lusaka. We did everything in Zambia. We were really confident that we could go one step further because this was like playing in our own back yard. But the first thing was to get there; we really believed that if we got to this final we could get it.

So there we were in Bloemfontein and we took teams apart but I remember the most difficult game was against Egypt in the quarterfinals. Egypt was really good led by Ahmed El Kass and their captain Hany Ramzy. We were down by a goal at halftime and we thought it was over. During recess, our coach then Roald Paulsen, asked ‘Do you want to win this game? We answered ‘yes coach’. he said 'Go out and play’. Mordon Malitoli, Dennis Lota and Vincent Mutale scored, 3-1 in the end. Tunisia was next in the semi finals.

The semifinal was a strange game, take us through it...

When we came into the semifinals, there was a feeling something was not right, because we conceded twice in the first 20 minutes, both awkward goals: the first one was a simple free kick and it bounced went in. We had so much belief and good players around and were sure we will come back and get them. But the more we pushed, the easier it became for them to score. We were 2-0 down at half time. We came back, they scored and we replied. Then it was 3-1 but they scored again to make 4-1. The Tunisians didn’t give us any chance to come back and very late we went 4-2 but was it over. We were a solid team but in that game, we were dismantled and could not come into the game. We had another game to play for bronze against Ghana which again was not going to be an easy game.

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And then you started against Ghana, how was that game?

On the final day, we played as a curtain-raiser, Poulsen again fielded a strong side. We were outplayed by Ghana because the Black Stars are a ball-playing team. Ghana captain Abedi Pele, my hero, didn’t play because of injury. I had followed his career when he was in Europe and before I went to Europe. I scored the only goal and we won Bronze again.

Family affairs are quite common in national teams, your and Kalusha was no different. Describe his personality and when did you guys first play together?

He is a fantastic human being and a great guy. The first game I played with him officially was the Morocco game in 1993 in Lusaka in a 1994 FIFA World Cup qualifier. Earlier, we missed out playing together at AFCON 1990 because he was not in the final squad due to injury, whilst I didn’t make the team for the 1992 AFCON. After the Morocco game, we played between 20 and 25 games together.

He is awesome, and in my opinion he was the best player we saw of his generation. As a brother, to see what he achieved as a player is remarkable. The hard work that he put in, the pressure that was always on him when we returned to play or where ever we played for Zambia, he delivered.

He had great instinct in whichever position he run into on the pitch and of course with the free-kick, it is a technique he practiced over and over for years. They are many great Zambian players; Godfrey Chitalu, Alex Chola, Efford Chabala, Timothy Mwitwa, Charles Musonda and my late brother Benjamin Bwalya amongst others. Like the Spanish say ‘grande jogador’ meaning great player, that is Kalusha.

We are seven years apart and grew up in the same house. To see him grow to become that great footballer and show patriotism, it’s incredible.

"They are many great Zambian players; Godfrey Chitalu, Alex Chola, Efford Chabala, Timothy Mwitwa, Charles Musonda and my late brother Benjamin Bwalya amongst others. Like the Spanish say ‘grande jogador’ meaning great player, that is Kalusha," Joel Bwalya

Did you share personal moments in camp or it was business as usual?

Usually when we were in Europe we would travel together. Sometimes, we will chat throughout a nine-hour flight standing at the back of the plane talking about football. It would be business as usual maybe one of us speak to relatives and siblings, and later on pass a message from home.

He was often irritated with me more than any other player when I made a mistake on the pitch. During the 1996 AFCON in South Africa, we roomed together but even then it would still be business. It would be ‘good morning’ and small talk about what time training or lunch was but he would give advice after the game. 

At one point in the Chipolopolo team we had the Bwalya brothers Benjamin as coach, Kalusha and Joel as players. That is a very rare situation in football, what was it like for you guys?

I grew up watching these guys Benjamin and Kalusha …fantastic footballers with super technique. I can confirm that Benjamin was the best player in the family though he never played for the national team. I never knew that one day Benjamin would be an assistant Zambia coach, Kalusha the captain and I would also be there as a player. So we were together for the first time in 1996 for the 1998 FIFA World Cup qualifiers. It was remarkable and historical. I would like to believe we all got there on merit. It was awesome for our parents and I’m sure they were proud of us doing service for the nation.