The Sunday Mail
Langton Nyakwenda Sports Reporter
FOR two weeks, in that special month of February, he was feted like a king in the city of Manchester.
Bodyguards were assigned to look after him as his club feared something sinister could happen to their hero.
Benjani Mwaruwari had scored the winner in the Manchester Derby, on his debut, and he was the toast of the blue half of the city.
A dozen years have passed since that historic occasion when the “Undertaker” buried English Premiership giants Manchester United at Old Trafford, in the process earning eternal iconic status at Manchester City.
Manchester City had not won a league match at Old Trafford since 1974, but the derby script changed on February 10, 2008 when Mwaruwari’s 45th minute header secured a 2-1 victory for “The Citizens” and with it the massive bragging rights.
Darius Vassel was on target for City in the 24th minute before Mwaruwari – who had joined “The Citizens” from Portsmouth in the January transfer window – added his name onto the score sheet just before the break.
Michael Carrick pulled one back for United in the 92nd minute but it was too little too late to deny Mwaruwari his marquee moment on the back pages of some of Britain’s biggest newspapers.
That Manchester United side had a cast of high profile stars including Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Carlos Tevez.
“That is the kind of a game that you don’t forget until you die,” Mwaruwari (42) reminisced in an interview with The Sunday Mail Sport from his United Kingdom base.
Mwaruwari, who was known in the professional game more by his first name Benjani than his surname, retired from football in 2014 and is now pursuing coaching badges with the UEFA A-License being his latest target.
But that Manchester derby goal remains etched in his mind and serves as an inspiration, given how his career had started in Zimbabwe.
There was a time when Mwaruwari, whose father initially didn’t want him to play football, had to steal a family radio to raise bus fare just to go and attend trials with a Chegutu based lower division team, Lulu Rovers in 1996.
“That single goal in the Manchester derby changed everything for me. I became an instant hero, remember this was my debut for City and scoring in such a big game was no mean feat.
“When I arrived at City I didn’t know the history associated with the Manchester derby in terms of head to head clashes.
“I only realised I had done something big when journalists started talking about that victory being the first for City at Old Trafford since 1974.
“It made me famous, the fans accepted me, and players embraced me. Sometimes you are not that good as a player but if you work hard you can achieve your goals,” he said.
Mwaruwari is currently attached to Portsmouth’s technical department for his coaching practicals.
“After that match, the club even assigned bodyguards to protect me for two weeks as they feared something bad could happen to me.
“But, being someone who was raised in Magwegwe back in Bulawayo, I later told them I didn’t need any protection.
“You see, I was brought up in a tough environment back home in Bulawayo and that kind of hardened me.”
The former Warriors skipper used to walk 12km a day to attend training sessions with Highlanders junior teams.
Even after getting bus fare from Highlanders on some days, a young Mwaruwari would opt to buy bread and a soft drink and then walk back home.
Journey to professionalism
After completing his ‘O’ Levels at Magwegwe, Mwaruwari decided to follow his heart, even it meant disappointing his father who didn’t want him to play football.
He left Bulawayo for Chegutu in 1996.
But that was after he stole a family radio to raise transport money.
“There was a teacher called Mr Chimwariro, he was our football coach at Magwegwe Secondary school in Bulawayo but he was also from Chegutu.
“So he told me, Benjani I want to take you to Chegutu once you finish your ‘O’ Levels. He wanted me to join his hometown club Lulu Rovers.
“When the time came I didn’t have money to go to Chegutu. So I had to steal a radio from home, I sold it and left for Chegutu.
“My father didn’t want me to play football so there was no way he would have given me money to travel to Chegutu.
“So I devised a plan. I hid the radio in a sack bag, the ones we used to call “Tshangani bags”. I already had a buyer and when I got the money, I don’t remember how much it was, I immediately boarded a train to Chegutu’’.
It was evident back then, that Mwaruwari was not immensely gifted, but he had one big strength.
He was a hard worker. He was also disciplined.
At Lulu Rovers, Mwaruwari would wake up before 6am to run along the railway line that links Chegutu and Kadoma, for almost 12km, twice a week.
“Our trainer would tell us the gravel inside the railway line would help us with endurance since it was heavy. I think that is what shaped me. The power play I later exhibited was a result of those drills at Lulu Rovers,” Mwaruwari said.
From Lulu Rovers, Mwaruwari joined the University of Zimbabwe in 1998, but that was after some intense jockeying among top-flight clubs involving a then cash-rich AmaZulu, Highlanders and Zimbabwe Saints. “I wanted ZW$5 000 signing on fee but University of Zimbabwe thought it was too much. It was off-season so I went back to Bulawayo and started playing in money games. “I was supposed to go back to Harare but I started receiving offers from Bulawayo clubs. Rahman Gumbo wanted me at Bosso and Delma Lupepe of AmaZulu put ZW$45 000 on the table.
“University of Zimbabwe got wind of the bidding war in Bulawayo and came with a fresh offer of ZW$70 000. I went back to Delma Lupepe with the intention of returning his money but he upped the offer to ZW$100 000. “UZ then went to my father and dangled a carrot. They assured my father that I would also enrol for studies and the scale tilted in favour of UZ.
“I went back to Delma again and returned his money. He didn’t like it but that was it. I signed for University of Zimbabwe.”
After a short stint at UZ, Mwaruwari was snapped up by Premiership outfit team Air Zimbabwe Jets in 1999.
He made his PSL debut against Arcadia United and scored in his first game.
“I played nine games and scored 10 goals. I was burying teams and that’s how I got the nickname Undertaker.
“That was the season that the Zimbabwean PSL tried to switch the season to an August-May programme. It was not successful and after that, I moved to Jomo Cosmos after impressing Jomo Sono in a friendly match between Zimbabwe and South Africa,” said Mwaruwari.
The Arsene Wenger connection
He was named South African PSL Player of the Season in 2001 and was immediately snatched by Swiss club Grasshopper Zurich.
In 2002, he moved to France where he joined Auxerre and played in the UEFA Champions League before catching the shrewd eye of legendary former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
“Arsene (Wenger) once assured me he would sign me if I continued excelling. However, it was Portsmouth who came in earlier and after Wenger’s recommendation, Harry Redknap signed me in 2006.
“Life was not initially easy at Pompey. I went for a number of games without scoring but the coach liked my industry. I worked for the team and kept my place in the starting line up even when I was not scoring.”
Mwaruwari now wants fellow Zimbabwean Marvelous Nakamba, whose debut Premier League season at Aston Villa elicited mixed reactions, to draw lessons from his stint at Pompey.
“The Premier League is a very difficult league I tell you. Just to make it into that league is a huge achievement on its own, so we have to celebrate Marvelous Nakamba. “He has done very well. Last season was his debut and he managed to show his capabilities. I am convinced next season he will prove his critics wrong.”
Despite having retired, Mwaruwari still commands immense respect at City and was part of the club’s legends squad that played against a Premier League All-Stars XI in the Vincent Kompany testimonial at the Etihad in September 2019. He came on as a second half substitute and scored the equaliser to level the match at 2-2. Micah Richards, Kolo Toure, Pablo Zabaleta, Samir Nasri, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Craig Bellamy, Mario Balotelli, Sergio Aguero and James Milner were part of the Manchester City legends squad. David Silva, who was recently honoured with a statue after spending 10 years at City before joining Real Sociedad last month, was also part of the legends team.
“Silva and Kompany were exceptional for Manchester City. All of us cannot be accorded a statue but I also feel Kolo Toure did a lot. “He won everything, he didn’t make the grade perhaps because sometimes you need to play 10 years.
“However, for me, it was great to be invited for that testimonial. It was nice reuniting with the likes of Richards and Wright-Phillips. “We cracked jokes, even Thierry (Henry) who was playing for the Premier League All Stars, joked about my powerful legs. ‘This guy was so strong and powerful’, he said with a laugh.”
Mwaruwari hung his boots at Bidvest Wits in South Africa six years ago after having had further stints with Sunderland, Blackburn Rovers and Chippa United.