HomeSportFootball was my escape from drugs: Matola

Football was my escape from drugs: Matola

Growing up in the ghetto, along the dusty paths of 224th street in Harare’s Canaan, Highfield, former Warriors tough-tackling defender James Matola could have easily fallen prey to drugs.

yesteryear profile with MUNYARADZI MADZOKERE

James “Van Damme” Matola

Living near Zororo Beira Corridor, then the hub of serious illicit drug activity in the Harare township, it was bound to take serious resolve to avoid being swept away by the tide.

And for young Matola, it was more difficult because his late brother Nicholas, the one whom he lived with, was a well-known drug dealer.

Often, Nicholas would give him pocket money, in notes too big to comprehend for a primary school kid, but it was their grandmother who convinced Matola not to indulge in drugs.
Strangely, Matola said he has never taken drugs or sipped alcohol in his life.

“I was surrounded by drug abuse and illicit drug trading when I was growing up. My brother was a drug dealer and he committed suicide, but for your own information, I have never taken alcohol in my life,” Matola told Standardsport last week.

“I guess it’s because I respected so much the woman who raised me. My grandma raised me up to be the man I am today… she was very strict. I also witnessed how it destroyed my fellow ghetto brothers.

“I knew that football was the only way out of this unholy life my peers were living in. And when I look back, I realise that all the guys who used to hang around with my brother taking drugs are no more,” said the former Supersport United defender.

One trait young Matola picked from his environment at a tender age was the love for money.

Van Damme (left) in Warriors colours

Luckily for him, he was an immensely talented young footballer and as a result, he never wanted to play football for nothing, thus he developed a craze for “money games”.

“I used to play ‘money games’ at break time at Rusvingo Primary School and I never wanted to play for the school team. It had to take the headmaster to threaten me with expulsion to force me to play in the school team,” he said.

However, it was after his brother committed suicide much later that he started taking football seriously.

“My brother used to give me a lot of money to spend at school, but after he committed suicide, I knew I had to start taking football seriously. A friend Denis Sango took me to Zupco FC and I played for the team for a couple of years after finishing my high school,” he said.

And Matola did not only become a footballer at Zupco FC, but a plumber — a job he kept for eight years until 2006 when he moved to play in South Africa at SuperSport United.

“After school, I wanted to do mechanics because I was employed by Zupco, but there was an opportunity in the plumbing department. An old man we called Mudhara Benji advised me to take it and he became my mentor,” the 40-year-old Tsholotsho assistant coach said.

“After I had qualified to be a plumber, I became a chief plumber for all Zupco depots in Harare, doing maintenance work for eight years.”

While at Zupco, Matola changed positions from playing as a striker to playing as a right back.

He was spotted by Air Zimbabwe Jets who were plying their trade in Division One and they made him part of their Premier League side which had highly talented players such as Benjani Mwaruwari, Lovemore Mapuya and Richard Choruma.

Matola also played for Circle United but it was the move to Dynamos — thanks to Warriors legend Moses Chunga who brought him to the Harare giants — which proved to be the turning point of his career.

Popularly known as Van Damme after the famous Belgian actor and martial artist Jean-Claude Van Damme because of his acrobatics, especially his trademark flying header, Matola said he had to spice up his play to entertain fans.

“That flying header and the other things I did was a way of entertaining the fans. I understood that they paid their money to be entertained,” he said.

Despite being regarded as an aggressive defender, Matola said he was never red-carded in his professional career.

“I was never given a red card in my career because I was not a rough player as many people thought, but I was a tough defender. I would get the ball first then sometimes the man, hence a lot of yellow cards. Yellow cards actually prevented me from getting on to the Soccer Stars calendar when I was at Circle,” he said.

The highlight of Matola’s career was when he represented Zimbabwe at the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt.

Back then, Matola was an integral member of the Warriors team, together with George “Zambia” Mbwando, Zvenyika Makonese, and Charles Yohane.

“I can say the peak of my career was participating at Afcon 2006. That’s where people are measured and it was a big achievement for me to be there. After one of the matches, Obafemi Martins [Nigerian striker] said to me, ‘I have been marked before but never like this. You’re probably one of the toughest defenders I have faced’,” he said.

Matola, who also played for the now defunct Buymore and South African side Free State Stars is against the notion that the famed Dream Team is the best Warriors squad, but believes the best teams are the ones that qualified for Afcon.

“The Dream Team is said to be the best Warriors squad ever, but they never won anything and they did not qualify for Afcon. I don’t think that is a fair assessment; for me, the best Zimbabwe teams are the three sides that qualified for the Afcon finals,” he said.

Now a CAF A Licence holder, Matola is now chasing a coaching dream, currently working under Darlington Dodo at Tsholotsho FC and he is clear about his ultimate goal.

“One day I want to coach the national team and qualify for big tournaments,” he said.

Meanwhile, a debate is going on in his house with his six-year-old son Blessing on who will be the better footballer between the two. Only time will tell.

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