RAHMAN Gumbo – who died in Botswana at the age of 59 after suffering a heart attack – played in an era in this country when Zimbabwean footballers were pin-up poster boys in the true sense of the word.
Literally so, because cuttings of their pictures taken off different publications were pinned on the bedroom walls of many youngsters, they hung in workplaces of an equal number of adults, and even appeared on the covers of learners’ school books.
To a lot of folks back then, watching these stars from the stands in stadiums across the country was quite the experience, and the thought of ever coming a touching distance of their sporting celebrities seemed all surreal.
Things do change as the years pass; you may get up close and personal to your heroes in later life. Not so quite with me as other sportswriters got to do with Rahman, who had become a top coach in the game.
But observing from a distance, there always seemed to be laughter when Rahman was around, among people he knew well and trusted, and often he was the source of that amusement.
I only came that close to Gumbo on only two occasions, and both were interestingly on the road. And it was on the first one instance that I found out exactly why the man they called Rush, or Rah, always naturally humoured those around him.
FC Platinum, in their second season of Zimbabwe’s Premier Soccer League (PSL), were making their maiden African Champions League appearance and what exciting times it were for a club that had emerged onto the scene with such glamour and financial power not seen before in the modern era of Zimbabwean domestic football.
Off the “Moneybags” were to Swaziland for the first leg of their preliminary round clash with Green Mamba, and I was one of five heads of sports desks across the country’s major newspapers taken along by the Zvishavane club to cover the assignment.
At airports and in flights, the Platinum players and staff turned heads in their flashy tailor-made dark grey suits, their swagger standing out amidst a sea of travelers.
It so happened that on the Johannesburg-to-Manzini flight, members of the Platinum squad were spread across the aircraft. I was allocated a seat close to the front, alongside coach Rahman and some of his players.
One of the players soon found out that his seat on the two-seat row side of the plane was side-by-side with a Caucasian man, of friendly demeanour and presumably a tourist, who was keen to have a sociable chat with his new friend as you would naturally expect with the attention that the Platinum delegation had drawn.
Clearly ill at ease with engaging in a conversation through a language he was not comfortable with, the particular player had asked if anybody among his colleagues could sustain a meaningful discussion with this friendly stranger, so they could swap seats.
But his coach, sitting on the edge one row behind the opposite one, would not allow it.
“Heyi mfana, awuyi ndawo (Hey, young man, don’t change places),” bellowed Gumbo, drawing the other players into fits of laughter. “Hlala lapho ufunde ukukhuluma isikhiwa njengo Rush! (Stay there and learn to speak good English like Rush!).”
So on the 50-minute flight, Gumbo would every 10 minutes or so tap his stony-silent player on the shoulder, let rip another comical comment, sparking yet another round of chuckles from the other players nearby. Laughter is contagious and the other passengers in close vicinity were soon joining in the spontaneous entertaining throughout the flight, at the expense of the poor guy who to his credit saw the funny side of the situation and laughed along.
One of Platinum players on that trip was Charles Sibanda, who I had known well since 2008 when he and his friend Bhekimpilo Ncube left Bulawayo to join Harare club Motor Action. They shared an apartment and I lived a street away from them in the neighbourhood those days, becoming particularly close to Sibanda who I spent countless hours with whiling away the time during very trying times in the country.
As we collected our stuff from the baggage carousel at Matsapha Airport, just for some fun, I wanted to know from Charlie what else the coach had said to his teammate on top of preventing him from moving seats. Charlie, whose Shona had vastly improved over the years, chuckled even harder at my inquisitiveness: “Ah, Rush ndozvaari uyu, anenge achingowanzira vanhu! (That’s Rush for you, he’s always making jokes about people!).”
And he had an abundance of jokes, witty ones, sometimes I felt in a clever way to take the pressure from his players onto himself. Rush or Rah his buddies called him, but there was one self-christened moniker we discovered on that Swaziland trip – the model – which somehow never really stuck as the others. Rahman rated his own taste of clothing and we heard him humouring his players a few times: “I’m a model, you know, guys, I’m a model!” The fashionable shirts, chains and wrist watches indeed said something of the man’s dress sense.
As South Africa prepared to host the 2013 Africa Cup, which was being switched to being in odd-numbered years, Gumbo had become interim coach of Zimbabwe’s national team coach, the Warriors.
We joined Rahman for a Safa- organised event at Fourways Mall in Johannesburg. Rahman had a good personal relationship with Lovemore Dube, the Sports Editor of the Chronicle, who he fondly called Bra Love. Over some drinks at OR Tambo Airport awaiting our return flight, Lovemore, who knew how to get the best out of Rush, got him to go down memory lane.
Rahman was so proud of his longevity in Zimbabwe colours, having teamed up with three Warriors generations in his international career. From the Chidzambwa brothers, Ephert Lungu, Ernest Mutano. To Moses Chunga, Francis Shonhayi, Ephraim Chawanda. Then your Ndlovu brothers, Mercedes Sibanda, Agent Sawu.
With that unequalled feat of his, Rahman – tongue-in-cheek – called us out, the football press corps, on a tendency to use the term legend too loosely. He was not shy to call himself one. The only question to him was just how many others fell in that category?