Sichikolo, From cheerleader to Chipolopolo 

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To summarize his brief and colorful international career, former Chipolopolo defender Happy Sichikolo has always subscribed to the premise that 'David will always prevail over Goliath'.

Sichikolo, who is currently assistant coach at Zambian top flight outfit, Forest Rangers, recalls his football story especially the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) where his exploits made him a household name.

"I have never doubted my capabilities. I can confidently say I was up there amongst the best right-backs Zambia has ever had, starting from Kaizer Kalambo in the 1974 AFCON, John Kalusa who was at Libya 1982 and John Soko who passed on in the Gabon air crash. They were all short like me but proved they could play at the highest level,” the diminutive former right back said in response to critics who must have doubted his qualities.

His roots are pure football, which if uprooted, literally smelt of the whiff of freshly cut grass and newly laid white lime lines from just over the perimeter wall fence inside Nchanga Stadium in Zambia's Copperbelt Province mining town in Chingola. He was born and raised in the shadow of Nchanga Stadium, home of his childhood club Nchanga Rangers.

"My first taste of football started as a member of the Nchanga Rangers Club Supporters group. I never beat the drums but I was my groups’ leader and choir master," Happy Sichikolo

Beginning as a cheerleader

Sichikolo also hails from a rare breed in the game that has made the successful transition from hard-core club supporter to footballer.

"My first taste of football started as a member of the Nchanga Rangers Club Supporters group. I never beat the drums but I was my groups’ leader and choir master. I also mobilized my local football team into our own Nchanga Rangers supporters group. We were quite notorious but with a huge passion for our hometown team.

"It was a very exciting time in my life and what I really enjoyed was not just the free pass for games but I mostly enjoyed travelling for away matches.”

But Sichikolo had a full plate in his prime apart from savouring cheerleading and football.

The other passion was on the track where he was a formidable middle-distance runner in the 800 meters and 1,500 meters where he was junior national champion.

In 1984, he decided to permanently surrender the privileges of the high fidelity freedom of expression fever in the stands when he answered the call to a more frequency modulated, regimental and methodical life that awaited him down on the pitch.

"We initially used to play street football and I was also in charge of painting shirt numbers on our old school uniforms that we used as team jerseys. It is also from the streets that my football talent was spotted by one Mr. Kandege who recruited us into his Kandege Stars team,” Sichikolo said.

The Kandege Stars team included would-be Chipolopolo defender, Robert Watyakeni, who was one of the 18 Chipolopolo players who died in the 1993 Gabon air crash off the coast of Libreville on April 28 of that year.

"We spent just half a season at Kadenge in 1984 with Watyakeni before we were recruited by Nchanga Rangers coach Willie Phiri into his teams’ youth side,” Sichikolo said.

“Phiri (Willie) will later to play a very big part in my football career at club and during my junior international career. He was quite determined to remove that supporter mentality deep inside me and get the best out of my football talent.

"My relationship with Watyakeni started from our street football days where we played for rival teams; he was from a team in the suburbs and we were in from the townships.

“But we became best friends because Watyakeni attended school in my township at Kabundi School and I was at nearby Sekelo School, so we walked to and from school together and that’s how our friendship began.”

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Emergence of 'Bauchi'

Watyakeni and Sichikolo would later headline the Zambia U-17 Class of 1989 under Phiri. That chemistry will also see Sichikolo appointed U-20 vice-captain, as deputy to Watyakeni. Their opponent at the final round of the qualifiers was Nigeria.

"We had an unforgettable trip to face Nigeria after a long flight from Lusaka to Lagos via Nairobi. We spent two days training in Lagos, and after we were told the game will be played in Bauchi (over 1000-kilometres away).

"We left Lagos at 5:00am and arrived at Bauchi late in the night. It was a tough game against guys like Daniel Amokachi, Victor Ikpeba and Sunday Oliseh. Joel Bwalya had a goal disallowed and was later sent off. With a man down I was fired -up and told myself we would not go down without a fight despite losing 2-0.

Nigeria later eliminated Zambia 5-0 on aggregate but Sichikolo’s performance in Bauchi marked his place in Zambian football folklore.

"My nickname "Bauchi” was not given to me by my U-17 team mates,” Sichikolo said.

"The story of how I got 'Bauchi' comes from my club Nchanga Rangers. It was actually given to me by Benjamin Bwalya after I returned from Nigeria and the rest is history."

"The story of how I got 'Bauchi' comes from my club Nchanga Rangers. It was actually given to me by Benjamin Bwalya after I returned from Nigeria and the rest is history," Happy Sichikolo

Start of Chipolopolo career

Later, Sichikolo and Watyakeni’s careers then took different paths with the latter heading to Power Dynamos in 1990 and the former soldiering on in Chingola.

Sichikolo will later deputize for his best friend in the 1991 U-20 AFCON qualifiers when they played Lesotho and Gabon to qualify for the final tournament in Egypt, after the latter was unavailable due to continental commitments with Power Dynamos.

But the final qualifier was to take an ugly turn and would blemish Sichikolo’s status as captain, after being sent off in the return leg, which cost him his place at the final tournament.

"I was suspended for the finals. I was remorseful about my actions. I had let the team down I didn’t lead by example. I believe had I gone to Egypt we may have done better. We had a talented team but I was the voice of a leader they needed that was missing."

In Egypt, the Young Chipolopolo reached the semifinals but failed to qualify for the FIFA World Youth Championship (now FIFA U-20 World Cup) in Portugal. Zambia finished fourth after losing 2-0 to Ghana in the third place.

“I got a reprieve the following year after the then Football Association of Zambia president David Phiri pleaded for my clemency. I felt great when the ban was lifted, and the feeling was just like my name........‘Happy’.”

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He returned from his ban to briefly play at Nchanga where he also had a missed opportunity to join DR Congo clubs TP Mazembe and Lupopo after impressing in an international club tournament held in Lubumbashi.

“One word I still remember very much was the crowd shouting “Katoto, Katoto!! meaning 'Small one' every time I touched the ball or went in for a challenge. The clubs wanted me but Nchanga didn’t take any of their interest seriously,” he said.

However, Sichikolo would have to wait another three years before he finally got his senior Chipolopolo breakthrough that came after the 1993 air crash in Gabon that claimed the entire national team .

The victims included five of his junior international team mates and club mates plus coach at Kabwe Warriors where he had moved to from Nchanga later in 1991 after briefly flirting with the idea of joining Mufulira Wanderers.

"I later became captain at Warriors in 1993 when Waston Changwe also died in that crash in which we also lost our club coach Godfrey ‘Ucar’ Chitalu who was also national team trainer," Sichikolo said.

"It was a very a difficult time for me. For one month I was not myself and you can imagine Watyakeni was my childhood friend and we had gone through a lot together, it was a very difficult time.

"I also lost my former junior national team mates Winter Mumba, Patrick Banda, Numba Mwila and Kennan Simambe. It was painful."

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Memories of 1994 AFCON

Sichikolo, though, did not make his official Chipolopolo debut until he landed at AFCON 1994 in Tunisia in the first game against Sierra Leone.

This is after only warming the bench in the AFCON and 1994 FIFA World Cup qualifiers and playing in high-profile training games against European clubs during the team’s post-1993 Gabon crash rebuilding camp in Europe.

He played four games at AFCON 1994 under late Zambia coach Ian Porterfield who gave him his big break.

"My debut international was actually at the AFCON in the game against Sierra Leone I was excited that my dream had finally come true," Sichikolo said.

"I played four games but the Cote d’Ivoire game was my most memorable where I marked Abdoulaye Traore.

"At one point he came at me and I won the ball on the corner flag I was so cheeky that I did a Roger Milla dance at the corner flag after winning the ball from him.

But heartbreak for Sichikolo followed when he sustained a hamstring injury in the quarterfinals against Senegal, ruling him out of the competition; as Chipolopolo went on to lose 2-1 to Nigeria in the final.

“We were a team that was put together at a short notice. We actually exceeded expectations and I thought we should be thankful we had even gotten a silver medal.

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Sichikolo went on to play in the inaugural Nelson Mandela Challenge a month later in May away against hosts South Africa.

Ironically, South Africa would be the team later in November, 1994 that would painfully decide Sichikolo's international fate in their subsequent meeting in a 1996 AFCON qualifier that ended 1-1 in Lusaka.

"I stayed out of action for over one year and it was even more painful because I was supposed to move to England and play for Wimbledon. But the agreement was firstly I play at AFCON 1996 and then move.

Sichikolo later returned from injury a year later for the Simba Four Nations in November 1995 but it was short-lived comeback.

During the pre-tournament camp in Lusaka, his ankle injury recurred in a training game against Zanaco.

“I was so broken to hear the bad news and I left camp after talking to the coach (Roald Poulsen) and did not even go back to my room to pack or pick up my bags.

"My playing career ended on that day and I never played again and that was the start of my life as a coach."

Currently, Sichikolo deputizes for Tenant Chilumba at Zambia top flight outfit, Forest Rangers.