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Between the sticks with Athiel ‘Cool Cat’ Mbaha

2022-01-07  Carlos Kambaekwa

Between the sticks with Athiel ‘Cool Cat’ Mbaha
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Katutura glamour football club African Stars have produced a significant number of great shot stoppers over the years, but none come anywhere near acrobatic net guard Asaria Ndjiva Kauami. 

The likes of Ripuree Hoveka, Ngatangue Kezumo, Cheese Kavikairirua, Big Charles Ngozu, Colin Usurua, Gruzi Goseb, Njangatare Kajau, Mannes Mujetenga, Ratjindua Katjimune, Amos Kajau and Abel Kazondunge, all donned the red, white and blue strip of ‘Starlile’ at different intervals with mixed fortunes. 

Nonetheless, the unavoidable arrival of the big-frame gloves’ man Athiel Mbaha from Otjinene, holed up in the vastly populated Omaheke region, added a new dimension to the team’s style of play. 

The new-look Reds reverted to their traditional simple one-touch football philosophy calmly introduced by German mentor, Dr Dieter Widmann upon the dawn of multi-racial football in apartheid South West Africa (SWA) in 1977.

New Era Sport caught up with the retired giant shot stopper as he takes you, our esteemed reader, through his amazing football journey that saw him plying his trade across the Orange River in the highly-competitive South African Premier Soccer League (PSL).

 

It’s often whispered in the gossip corridors of local football that former Brave Warriors agile goalie ‘Mr Cool Cat’ is amongst the finest goalkeepers to have ever graced our football fields post-independence, though popular wisdom amongst football pundits is that Ronnie Kanalelo had very few peers in the goal-keeping department, if any.

Mbaha took his place between the sticks during his formative years as a pupil at the Okakarara Senior Secondary School, keeping goal for both the town’s powerhouses Kaondeka Aces and Super Stars football clubs, respectively.

It was not long before his near faultless display between the goalposts caught the eyes of talent scouts from the city of bright lights (Windhoek). African Stars came knocking on his door, and the giant goalie did not need a second invitation. 

‘Cool Cat’, as the well-liked net-guard was affectionately known amongst his admirers, spent four solid seasons with ‘Starlile’, making the number one jersey his personal property in the process. 

However, coastal giants Blue Waters came dangling a juicy carrot in his baby face, obliging the giant goalie to exchange the bright lights for the cool breeze of the freezing Atlantic Ocean. 

As it turned out, playing under the watchful eye of shrewd Zimbabwean mentor Sheperd Murape, the new kid on the block blossomed into a much sought-after shot stopper, and almost single-handedly guided ‘Omeya’ to the coveted league title, MTC and FNB Cup triumphs during his three seasons with the exciting Kuisebmond outfit.

Having won almost every available silverware there was to be won, it was time for a new challenge and it came as no surprise when ‘Cool Cat’ finally signed for PSL Black Leopards. 

In the meantime, Mbaha’s rise to stardom did not escape the attention of national selectors, as then Brave Warriors’ auxiliary head coach Max Johnson, deputised by Sandro de Gouveia, called him up for the Warriors training camp in 2004. 

He made his international debut against Lesotho in a friendly away match in Maseru, and even though he conceded a goal, ‘Cool Cat’ ended on the winning side with the Warriors emerging 2-1 victors. 

The giant goalie cemented his place in the Warriors squad as the country’s number one. He played an instrumental role when Namibia qualified for her second appearance at the African Cup of Nations in Ghana in 2008, precisely 10 years after Namibia’s debut in the continental showpiece.

The partly speech-impaired ‘Cool Cat’, kept the rampant Ghanaian forwards at bay for the better part of a thrilling encounter between the hosts and underdogs Namibia. The hosts’ gorgeous firing line was spearheaded by internationally-acclaimed stars such as Sullie Muntari, Asamoah Gyan and Michael Essien. 

Tellingly, the Namibian amateurs matched the much-fancied hosts pound for pound in their second match in the group stage, despite going down by a solitary goal (1-0) via the boot of Essien, in front of a packed national stadium in Accra.

After a relative low-key stint with the unfashionable Limpompo outfit, the homesick ‘Cool Cat’ returned home, only to resurface at Katutura giants Orlando Pirates, helping the ‘Ghosts’ to their first league title in 40 years. 

A bird of passage, ‘Cool Cat’ developed itchy feet and jumped the smooth-sailing Buccaneers ship to join cross town rivals Ramblers. His imposing presence between the sticks propelled the Pionierspark outfit to a respectable runner-up spot in the league title race. 

Next stop was South Africa, where he joined forces with PSL side Maritzburg United under the stewardship of multiple league title winning coach Gordon Igesund. 

“It was a totally new ball game playing in the PSL against top sides. Imagine coming face to face with Mamelodi Sundowns with amazing players in the shape of Surprise Moriri, Lerato Shabangu, and Lungisani ‘Long Tom’ Ndlela in their armoury. Without an iota of doubt, the highlight of my spell in the PSL was when Leopards saw off Kaizer Chiefs 2-1 in a league match in Thohoyandou.” 

“Surprisingly, I had no pre-season training with the team and just went straight into the starting line up in a friendly game in Richardsbay. Luckily, we won the match and I managed to save a penalty. Coach Igesund made me sign the contract the next day. We had a very good team with a decent mixture of experienced players and enthusiastic youngsters led by Junior Kanye, Lucky Maselesele and other highly-gifted youngsters.”

Capped 39 times by his native land, the much-travelled ‘Cool Cat’ also had a short stint with Donkerhoek outfit Tigers, propelling ‘Ingwe’ to a third-place finish on the NPL log table during his debut season for the old-time campaigners. 

Despite a near spotless playing career, the retired giant goalie is still unhappy with the shoddy fashion in which the Warriors lost a crucial Cosafa Cup match against Botswana at Windhoek’s Independence stadium. The match ended one-all and had to be decided on penalties. 

“Eish...it was a very painful episode because I saved three penalties during the dreaded shootout but we still lost 2-1.” 

Nowadays, a formidable chess player and part-time cattle breeding farmer, ‘Cool Cat’ also double up as goalkeeper coach for his former club African Stars, ploughing back the vast experience gained over the years. He was crowned champion of the Independence Chess Blitz Tourney in 2017. 


2022-01-07  Carlos Kambaekwa

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