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.
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.