By Thomas Kwenaite
Ernest “Wire” Mtawali was considered among the finest if not most elegant player ever to grace local football fields, bossing first the Bloemfontein Celtic and later the Mamelodi Sundowns midfield that he reminded many followers about the legendary former Dutch star Ruud Gullit.
In fact, there were so many similarities between the two; their imposing physique, flowing dreadlocks and their endless energy that allowed them to cover every blade of grass on the soccer field, making them what is today known as a box-to-box player.
Both had an insatiable appetite for goals and incidentally, both were gifted in the scuffing tactic; the ability to pass the ball with the instep or outstep. Remarkably, both excelled in either the short or long passing game. Mtawali made such a great impact on local football that at one point long suffering Bafana Bafana supporters implored the SA Football Association to grant him Mzansi citizenship.
In a long distance call to the man who was known as “Wire” in the local game, Mtawali reveals his transition from a player to becoming a coach and goes on to finger a player that impressed him in the domestic Premier Soccer League following his elevation as national coach of the Malawi “Flames”.
In 2008, perhaps in anticipation of hanging up his boots, Mtawali spent time in England in pursuit of a UEFA B Coaching License. After completing it, he went to Germany where he successfully completed an A License and when Malawi searched for the U-20 national coach, he was the obvious choice.
“During my time as the head coach of the U-20 side,” said Mtawali, “my technical team and I were able to transform those youngsters into a formidable side playing an exciting brand of football.
“I have a similar mandate from the Football Association of Malawi (FAM), to bring stability within the senior national team. Malawi has a unique style of approach to the game. My job is the find common ground between modern trends and our historic approach to the game, without losing our identity.
“I feel greatly humbled by the faith and the belief that FAM has shown in me. I am filled with pride and joy. It is a feather in the cap for me personally that after representing “The Flames” on 62 occasions as a player I am now able to pass on my two decades of experience onto the lads.”
However, it had not been smooth sailing for Mtawali. He took over from Young Chimodzi following a shattering 2-1 loss at home to Zimbabwe in the opening round of the 2017 AFCON campaign. He then led the “Flames” to a credible 1-0 victory against Uganda in a friendly game to prepare for their next match.
Many people expected Malawi to cruise past Swaziland, generally regarded as lightweights in African football in round two of the AFCON 2017. But Mtawali cautioned against over confidence.
“I warned the lads that there are no longer minnows in African football and Swaziland’s victory over Guinea recently bears testimony. And I will not under estimate any team in our group.
“My coaching philosophy is to concentrate on my own team. We will not make radical changes to the team. I am working on a tactical formation and on the psychology of the players. We need to create a positive mood and attitude in the camp and dressing room.
“These lads need to understand what it means to put on the national jersey. They need to know the impact that their performance has on the vendor at the market in Blantyre and Lilongwe; the impact that their performance has in the corridors of the State House; in the streets of Chichiri and the waitress in Lake Malawi.”
Malawi took what appeared like a commanding 2-0 lead. But the terrier like Swazis staged a remarkable fightback to level the score 2-2 in the second half and Mtawali is now left with a mountain to climb to reach Gabon 2017.
Their Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup campaign has sadly come to a shuttering end. A shocking 2-0 loss to Tanzania in Dar es Salaam was followed by a 1-0 triumph at home in the preliminary round of the competition, putting paid to their ambitions of qualifying for the Mundial for the first time in their history.
“It has been both disappointing and very painful to bow out of qualification to the World Cup,” said Mtawali. “But we are not giving up and we will work harder in the AFCON qualifiers and try everything in our power to qualify for Gabon. It will not be easy, but nothing is impossible, I believe that.”
For a country that has produced brilliant players going back decades, what has gone wrong with Malawian football, a country that used to be very difficult to beat and had turned the Kamuzu National Stadium into a fortress where even angels feared to tread?
“I am an eternal optimist and I see an opportunity to reclaim the glory. We need to build self-confidence. We need to have self-belief in our abilities. We need to work on how to prepare for matches. We must be professional in our attitude in camp which must translate to our commitment on match days on the field.
“We tend to forget that the German national team went through a similar cycle. Fortunately they crossed the Rubicon and we can take key lessons from their situation and shorten our own turnaround curve.”
Mtawalai burst onto the South African football scene as Chirwali back in 1985 as he led an unfashionable Bloemfontein Celtic to the Mainstay Cup triumph against African Wanderers at a packed Ellis Park Stadium. The same year he was crowned NPSL Player of the Year.
“I truly enjoyed my football and my stay at Celtic. We had a great bunch of players and could compete against anybody. We were allowed to express ourselves by Dave Roberts. We were not afraid to make mistakes but above all, we fought for each other and died for each other. That’s what made us so successful.”
After playing a starring role at Celtic, Mtawali was scouted by Mamelodi Sundowns, then under Anastacia Tsichlas and he in turned recommended compatriot (the late) Lovemore Chafunya.
“I had a lengthy football career and have no regrets. I played in South Africa, Italy, France, Argentina and Saudi Arabia. In Argentina, with Newel Old Boys, I had the pleasure of being the guest of Diego Armando Maradona. I trained hard throughout my career and was disciplined both on and off the field, I never cheated the game.
“I realized the day that my son – Patrick – turned professional at Bidvest Wits that it was time to hang up my boots. I can vividly recall in the game between Wits and Ajax Cape Town, my Son was on the Wits bench and I was playing in the opposition.
“My transition to the coaching profession has been natural. I was head coach at Bloemfontein Celtic after they were relegated. We came close to gaining promotion back to the elite league and I also coached Alexandra United in the Vodacom League.
“When the opportunity came through from the Football Association of Malawi, to coach the Under 20, I grabbed it with both hands. I am also grateful to the President of Mamelodi Sundowns FC Patrice Motsepe for the exposure that he granted me to form part of their scouting group. The experience is invaluable.”
Although now based in Malawi, Mtawali still follows South African football religiously.
“I was highly impressed by the Kaizer Chiefs center back pairing of Tefu Mashamaite and Eric Mathoho last season. You could see that they were playing with a high level of confidence. I would also like to encourage Mathoho to play table tennis as a hobby. This will improve his 360 Degree vision and assist him in picking players in his Blind Spot.
“And I guess this young lad from Ajax Cape Town now playing for Mamelodi Sundowns – Keagan Dolly – has been a revelation for me. He must not get big headed but continue to work hard and stay focused. He has experienced guys like Surprise Moriri around him and must listen to them.”