“Benjani whoa, Benjani whoa. He comes from Zimbabwe. He’s gonna score today!” Manchester City fans used to sing in praise of former Warriors captain Benjani Mwaruwari.
BY MICHAEL MADYIRA
Such was the bond between Benjani and the fans that they sang songs of praises for one of Zimbabwe’s biggest exports.
His career at the then Eastlands Stadium was however blighted by a spate of injuries.
While City fans worshipped, him, he however feels Portsmouth supporters were the most colourful during his six seasons in England where he turned out for four clubs.
He also played for Blackburn Rovers and was on a loan stint at Sunderland.
“The best fans were at Portsmouth. They were unbelievable,” Benjani told Standardsport last week.
Admired by Arsene Wenger quite a lot, Benjani arrived at Portsmouth from French side AJ Auxerre in January 2006, at the recommendation of the Arsenal manager. Harry Redknapp had got his man who immediately became a Fratton Park darling. His start at Portsmouth was however marked by a goal drought but still won the hearts of the fans because of assists and a high work ethic. His moment finally came when he scored at Old Trafford against Manchester United. “That goal announced my arrival in England,” he said.
“It drew everyone’s interest. I did not know statistics and I woke up to screaming news headlines that I had helped Portsmouth beat Manchester United for the first time after 36 years of trying.
“I suddenly became a hero in Portsmouth. I became a darling of the fans. That game changed everything. You always feel great. You play for the fans, yourself and the team,” Benjani said.
He struck again at Old Trafford in his City debut match in February 2008 to help them complete a double over their rivals.
He also scored at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea and a brace against Liverpool while at Blackburn Rovers.
Although his time in England is the most talked about, Mwaruwari says he enjoyed his stay in France more. “I enjoyed my time in France the most. I miss it a lot. Auxerre was then a big club in France,” he said.
Auxerre threw Benjani into international spotlight when they played in the Uefa Champions League.
In a Champions League Group A match against Arsenal in 2002, he had goalkeeper David Seaman crashing against the goal post in a bid to save his ferocious shot.
A television commentator scream-ed: “Had that got in, it was going to be the European goal of the season!”
Benjani fondly recalls the match. “I remember that game very well. It was my second Champions League match,” he said.
Before signing for Auxerre, he spent a season at Swiss side Grasshoppers and went on to play alongside celebrated footballers like Philip Mexes, Robinho, Pablo Zabaleta, Nigel deJong and Craig Bellamy.
“Talk of Vincent Kompany, [Nwanko] Kanu, Sol Campbell, Djibril Cisse and Kalilou Fadiga. All these were good guys I played with.”
But to him, his greatest football moments were with the national team, Zimbabwe’s Warriors.
Capped 44 times with the Warriors, the former Jomo Cosmos forward had last featured for the national team in October 2010 during an Africa Cup of Nations Qualifier against Cape Verde.
He had made his debut in 1999 during a friendly international match against South Africa to commemorate the inauguration of former South African President Thabo Mbeki.
“Obviously, playing for the national team stands out as a major highlight of my career,” he said.
“The first time I was called up for national team camp I remember Clemens Westerhof had named almost 20 foreign-based players. I did not feel inferior and was never afraid of being dropped. I broke into the national team to find big guys like Bruce Grobbelaar, Peter and Adam Ndlovu, Norman Mapeza, Kennedy Nagoli, Kenneth Chihuri. It came as a surprise.
“I never really understood the meaning of playing for the national team then. I took everything for granted and did not have any ambitions. Everything was happening quickly. When I moved to Switzerland, that is when I started feeling pressure. I wanted to impress and that came with a lot of pressure.
“One good thing about football players is that they do not look down upon each other. I got tremendous support from the established guys and they would always encourage me.
“At one time Mapeza took me to his house. He wanted to give me football boots but unfortunately they did not fit well.”
After his contract with South African side Wits University expired in June, Benjani took time to relax by attending the Fifa World Cup in Brazil and later on holidayed with his UK-based family.
The semi-retired 36-year-old will today leave for England. He now holds a Football Association Level 2 coaching certificate and says one of his dreams is to one day be the Warriors’ coach.
“I had come with the kids for holiday,” he said. “I want to study for the Uefa B. That is one of the reasons I am travelling to the UK. I understand Manchester City are doing an in-house course and I will enquire about it.
“Of course I want to coach the national team one day, but I am not rushing things. I would not want a situation where I wake up tomorrow and find out that I have been appointed Warriors coach. Benjani is now coach, from where? How? I have not coached anywhere so it is impossible for now. I want to start from somewhere and then consider the national team later.”
With Zimbabwean football wounded at the moment, Benjani has a recommendation for football administrators.
“We just have to go back to grassroots and have organised academies,” he said.
In the 13 years of playing football abroad, Benjani has amassed wealth including a £2,1 million mansion in Bournemouth where he was staying during his Portsmouth days.
“I cannot really state where I am based because I have properties in South Africa as well, so I travel a lot,” he said.
His South African-born wife Nomatemba and their four children are guaranteed a decent life.
While playing in England, Benjani established close friendship with Kanu whom he regards as his best friend and the Nigerian once holidayed in South Africa while staying in Benjani’s mansion in an upmarket suburb of Johannesburg.