By Brian Mulenga
I first met Charles Musonda in 1984. We are age mates, Charles and I. In 1984 we were both at Mufulira Secondary School and this small, short 15 year old was making waves. Everyone agreed he was definitely going to be the next big thing,
Over at Kantanshi they had a short squat power forward, slightly older called Johnson Bwalya who was also making waves and he was already playing for Butondo Western Tigers.
Mr Samuel Zoom Ndlhovu, the Might Mufulira Wanderers coach was convinced he had a diamond on his hands. “Charles has more footballing sense than people who have been playing football for 20 years”.
The excellent passing, the intelligent running, the brilliant use of space meant Charles Musonda was the youngest ever debutant for Mighty Mufulira Wanderers.
A certain Belgian man, Gert Huys, who ran a mining contracting firm, was a big soccer fan. He loved Mufulira Wanderers. He got in touch with his childhood club Cercle Brugge and all of a sudden several Zambians found their way to way to Belgium. Even one Malawian, an excellent center forward Frank Sinalo was amongst the group of Kalusha Bwalya, Stone Nyirenda, and Lucky Msiska who were all in playing in Belgium because of the Belgian scouts who were following Zambia.Frank Sinalo played well against Zambia over two legs and found himself joining in this exodus to Belgium.
Charles Musonda had mesmerized Cercle Brugge when they came to Zambia to play friendlies with Mufulira Wanderers and the National team in the off season. They were stunned by the skill of the Zambians who easily matched the Belgians for skill but lacked the tactical know-how. Especially impressive was a small, slight, central midfielder. It was the young Charles Musonda.
The Cercle Brugge management already had one astonishing Zambian talent on their hands, one Kalusha Bwalya; they certainly did not want to miss on acquiring another gem.
That is how 17-year-old high school student, Charles Musonda, followed Kalusha Bwalya to Cercle Brugge. There he met his mentor George Leekens. In July 1986 he arrived in Belgium. He was so young he could not live alone and was boarded with a family.
It is said Charles at the time did not see football as a career. He played for fun. Having been brought for a three-month trial, Charles Musonda was so good; Cercle Brugge scrapped the trial in the very first week he was there. George Leekens had seen enough.
A year later George Leekens moved to Anderlecht and he took Charles Musonda with him. In the mid-1980s Belgium was a top soccer world power and had a very talented team. Anderlecht its best team was a force in European football. For an 18-year-old boy from Africa to go straight into the first team was unthinkable.
This was where Charles Musonda met another lifelong friend. Steven Big Boss Keshi. Their first meeting was in a training 5 a side match. Keshi was on one side and Charles on the other by the end of the training match, Steven Keshi wanted to speak to the young Zambian. Stephen Keshi was utterly enthralled he could not believe an 18-year-old had such an incredible football brain.
Charles was now on a demanding schedule which included school, training and a commute from Brugge to Brussels. Eventually, he graduated from school and moved to Brussels. Charles improved markedly and even when Leekens left the new coach Goethals was impressed.
The years from 1987 to 1990 were his best footballing years. Not only was Charles at the center of a strong Anderlecht team, he also became the fulcrum of a strong Zambia team that gave a fantastic account of itself at the 1988 Olympics and followed it up with a very creditable 3rd place at AFCON 90.
In the 1989-90 season, Charles Musonda played his best season. He drove Anderlecht to the final of the UEFA Cup which included beating a strong Barcelona side on aggregate over two legs home and away. Charles contributed an assist in each game. Particularly sweet was providing the assist that knocked out Barcelona.
In the final, Anderlecht lost to Sampdoria 2-0 but Charles gave a stunning performance. Watching were the Italian soccer super power Juventus. Juventus made an offer and Charles should have gone to Juventus. However, an old problem cropped up.
Charles Musonda had been prone to knee and ankle injuries. Even at the Seoul Olympics Charles had suffered an injury in the game against Germany. Charles, despite being frequently in pain, had played through the pain. He was literally risking being crippled for life every time he stepped on the pitch.
The final straw was when a training session ended with Charles Musonda ending up in hospital. Training all alone, he felt the knee give way and he was in incredible pain. From 1991 to 1997 Charles was to go through many, many operations on his knee and his ankle, including seven operations on one knee.
The 1993 Gabon air crash did not kill Charles because when the crash happened, Charles had undergone yet another operation in Antwerp. The news reached him when he was recovering from the operation in hospital.
Charles repeatedly accused of being unpatriotic for missing many games for Zambia but the truth was Charles was playing through injury and sometimes against doctors’ orders. By 1995, he was spending more time in the hospital doing physiotherapy or preparing for an operation on his knee or ankle than in training.
That was when the big hearted former Anderlecht captain, Stephen Keshi came in. Keshi in the twilight years of his career decided to do his coaching certifications in the US, in Sacramento. Seeing the plight of the younger Musonda he helped him come to Sacramento and learn to coach as well. Plus the medical facilities were better than in Europe.
This was not unusual for Stephen Keshi who had helped many African players with accommodation, trials with clubs, even accommodation. Charles enjoyed the US and got a chance to heal and he eventually was fit enough to come back to Belgium and play a few more games before being warned he was risking his health continuing to play.
After a short spell in Germany, he came back to Belgium and went to University. He was now preparing for life after football. A chance meeting was to revive his association with football. Some of his old team mates were back at Anderlecht and were now on the coaching staff. That chance meeting led to him becoming a youth soccer coach.
Charles is now a youth soccer coach and his 3 sons are all active soccer players. When his son Charles Junior joined Chelsea he moved to London as Chelsea took on the Musonda family as a package.