When Nchimunya Mweetwa rests his head on his pillow in the moment that he is about to drift into sleep, he sees two versions of himself in his mind. The first one is of a striker who has just scored and is wheeling away to the rousing jubilation of a stadium packed full of fans, while the second one is of a man who has not done enough. A man whose career of scoring goals from Zambia to Europe was marred by match-fixing, and a man who is discontent with his attempts to make sure this never happens to another player.
Mweetwa was born in the Zambian capital Lusaka in 1984 before his father, who worked for Zambian telecommunications company Zamtel got a promotion, moved the family to Ndola in the Copperbelt province of Zambia. Mweetwa was born into a developing Zambian football landscape, which was backed by a competitive high school football scene.
He moved to Choma in the Southern Province to commence his secondary education as his high school was a feeder club for the local second division team Kabibya United, and began his career at 15 to the scorn of his father.
One season later, upon completion of his studies, he found himself returning to Ndola as he began to play college football after a few months away from the game. One of the local teams, Division 1 side Medical Stars, approached him; Mweetewa spent a season there before the team were relegated to Division 2. He then joined Division 1 side Ndola United and spent four months there before a brilliant run of form earned him another move.
Kitwe United were financed by wealthy benefactors Charles Nshimbi and Ponga Liwewe who, according to Mweetwa, brought a level of professionalism to the game which heavily influenced his career.
He found a coach in Peter Kaumba who began to give him the belief that he could achieve greater things in his football career, while at the club he also met 2012 African Cup of Nations winning goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene, who at the time was challenging him for his position as a striker.
“When I was playing there, I was seeing the guys who were playing in the national team and then Ponga and Nshimbi really put it into me that those guys weren’t better than me and it registered in my head. It was an awesome time as when we were training on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, he [Mweene] used to play as an inside striker. He would compete with me and would be like ‘I’m going to score more goals’ – but actually I scored more goals.”
“When Zesco United came, they approached me while I was on national team duty. They even asked me to resign, which I did. I even wrote a resignation letter. When I went back, Nshimbi and Ponga saw my letter and bought me a ticket saying I am going for trials in South Africa. I went to Tembisa Classic (now Maritzburg United). I spent a month there and it was like a holiday. The Head Coach was interested in me but I thought they were playing a fast one on me.”
He finally moved to Zesco in his second season after Nshimbi and Liwewe pulled out of the club and Kitwe United had a financial incentive to sell him. Mweetwa moved back to Ndola to play at the pinnacle of Zambian football this time. It was initially a loan move but he had the exposure of playing in the African Confederations Cup as he began to experience the pressure of a top level footballer.
Then came the move that most African footballers dream of. In April 2007, Finnish club Rovaniemi Palloseura (RoPs) found themselves in need of a striker; Mweetwa was called for a trial after a glowing recommendation from their former Zambian player, Zeddy Saileti.
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Mweetwa in action for RoPs
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“It was so difficult for me to adjust as the weather was so cold. You could imagine the first day, I arrived there and the following day we had a training match and I was coming from a deathbed, not physically fit, it was so cold my toes were stiff and I had to play a friendly match against a team from Sweden.”
“I thought I did well in the first half as an African player and according to the standard of Zambian football. At half time, the coach was angry with me and he told me ‘we want a striker, not a playmaker’. Here in Zambia, strikers run a lot but there I found strikers don’t do that. The same thing he told me, that’s what Antonio Conte told Diego Costa at the beginning of this season.”
“After three weeks, the coach didn’t want me but the president is the one who signed me. The president said, ‘I have seen something in you that I have seen in Zeddy Saileti’, who was there 14 years before me. Zeddy went on to be one of the legends of Finnish football for the club, he won player of the year three times and top scorer three times. The president told me, ‘with time, you are going to do what Zeddy did’, and they signed me.”
“The first five games, I never scored and the fans in Europe were on me. Teams might even terminate your contract but I thank God because in that season, I broke a record as I scored 12 goals in 12 consecutive games. To me it is an achievement that will never go out of my mind or the archives; it’s an award which nobody can take away from me.”
After scoring 17 goals in his first season, his second season began in reverse as he started in brilliant form only for his growth curve to be halted by a nasty challenge which saddled him with a knee injury for much of the season. During that period, he began to treasure the relationship that he had with the fans: “Even up to now, I hold the fans in my heart, they loved me so much as they put up banners, and it was amazing to see. They praised me and when I got the ball, they chanted my name, they even made a song for me even if I was off form – they would start cheering and calling for my name just to motivate me. If I was off form, I would score a goal just because of the fans. I hold them in my heart.”
His wife and young son came to Finland to support him and ease the stress that his injury caused him. He spent time between the physio room and home with an injury that forced him to have more surgery the next season.
The topics turns dark, however, as we begin to discuss match-fixing as he describes his experiences with greed and the ordeal he was put through by some truly nefarious characters.
“After the injury, I came back scored a couple of goals in the cup, and we were then introduced to match-fixing. The way they approached us, you wouldn’t know. They were so kind, they had original documentation from FIFA as agents, and I was so desperate to move from Finland because I had spent a lot of time there. I was injured and frustrated, I just wanted to have a fresh opportunity.
“Here comes a guy who approached one of my friends, started giving them money, not asking them to fix any matches but buying their relationship or, like they said, ‘buying love’.”
Mweetwa claims that the relationship turned sour when the match-fixers came to collect what they were owed: “They came back saying we were not giving you money for free, now you have to start paying back. You find that those guys are real mafioso; they are sweet in the beginning, now when it is time to work, they are not good people. They can even kill you. When they came in that manner, with their true colours, it was so hard for us to refuse because we were scared for our families and our lives. We had to comply.
“We told them that if we were going to do anything, we just have to be winning games. You have to tell us what to do to win, so they started giving us conditions like you have to score four goals each game.”
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Read | The African youngsters who become prisoners of their own dreams
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He cites some heinous behaviour as he and his team-mates involved were subsequently threatened: “My team-mates and I were threatened but you know I can not mention them, especially my friend who was in contact with one of them. They threatened us so many times, they would even show us videos of players who they have thrown in rivers whilst they tie them with a stone. They even showed us videos of a girl. The guy failed to comply with them and then they got his girlfriend on a moving train and threw her out of a train. You see, these are not good people.”
The players complied and went to some morally-eroding lengths to abide by their commands: “That’s why I say those guys are not football people, all they are interested in is the money. When they tell you to score four goals, you have to score four or more to make them money. If you don’t it becomes debt and you have to make up and pay them for the money they lost in the bet and gambling.”
Mweetwa also points the finger at himself and unearths the factor of greed in such a situation and the hold it can take on an individual: “The money was good so when you get the money before the game, you would just be thinking of doing everything possible to win so that you can keep the money. We would drink energy drinks, take anything just to boost our energy levels to play and last 130 minutes on the pitch. We would score the four goals they would ask us to score.
“The authorities used to test us randomly because we used to run like horses – especially when we think of the money – so that you can be better than the other team and keep the money.
“We never got the information out, especially when you are dealing with money. People become greedy and selfish so we became greedy and selfish. We wanted to keep the money to ourselves.”
However, the first domino fell when notorious match-fixer Wilson Raj Perumal was arrested at a Finnish airport for using a fake passport. The Finnish Border Authority declined to comment on this story when contacted.
“I’m sorry, but we can’t give any information about these cases to anyone who is an outsider,” said Tuomas Salmela, a duty officer at the Helsinki Border Control Department.
Wilson Raj Perumal’s general counsel, Finnish law firm Pertti Poykko, were contacted but also refused to comment, citing lawyer-client confidentiality. “Our client signed an agreement which prohibits us from releasing any information on this case,” said a spokesperson for Pertti Poykko during a phone call.
These proved to be the most stressful days of Mweetwa’s life as he was literally waiting for the police to come knocking at his door. “That is when reality dawns and you think that this is bad. Since I committed this crime, I thought definitely that they would get hold of me so it was a tough time. When you heard the doorbell, you would think it was the police coming to arrest you.”
However, it wasn’t at his house that the authorities finally came calling; it was at his work where he and seven other team-mates were hauled off the training pitch and were taken into custody. Six Zambians and two Georgian players – Godfrey Chibanga, Chileshe Chibwe, Francis Kombe, Stephen Kunda, Christopher Musonda, Chanda Mwaba, Nchimunya Mweetwa, Pavle Khorguashvili and Valter Khorguashvili – were all taken into custody on match-fixing charges that day.
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Read | How Zambia restored their fortunes a year after the fatal plane crash of 1993
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“On the pitch, while we were training, that’s where we got arrested. They started doing the investigations while we were in police custody,” says Mweetwa.
In the spring of 2011, the Rovaniemi Court of Appeal convicted the players of match-fixing and they were banned by the Football Association of Finland (FAF) following the conclusion of an appeals process. Raj Perumal was sentenced to two years in prison while the players were given suspended sentences. Their ban from the FAF was later extended worldwide.
The players certainly will not be subject to any goodwill in Finland, according to RoPs president Risto Niva: “I think that I never can forgive him or any other Zambian player. It was a financial catastrophe to our club. We lost almost a million euros because of that. And our reputation went in Finland, in a country where we don’t have corruption, was destroyed.”
When asked how he would remember Mweetwa in the future, Niva gave a very honest assessment: “I just remember that he is a criminal who is still in debt to our club for a lot of euros,” Niva told These Football Times.
Mweetwa returned to Zambia and has served out his ban, but at the age of 32 with a playing career now in his rearview mirror, he now focuses on stamping out corruption the country.
“Before I went to Finland, we would sell matches but we never knew that it was match-fixing like I know now. I never had the knowledge and thought if we could do this in Zambia then it is just the same, although in Europe it is at a different level. I was banned by FIFA for two years – I couldn’t play any football games for two years so I was so frustrated and, during the ban, that’s when the reformation came. I repented.
“I did a lot of research on match-fixing, doping and age-cheating so I came up with a proposal to the Football Association of Zambia and the technical department that we could start an awareness campaign because it happens in Zambia and I am one of the victims. I wouldn’t want to see anyone go through the same. The technical department thought it was good. At the CAF B Managerial License course, I did my first presentation on anti-corruption, focusing on match-fixing.”
Mweetwa has found a new lease of life back in his home country, although his biggest regret is not being able to continue his playing career. He leads a life where he takes little for granted and has a newfound respect for his family and how they supported him throughout his wrongdoings and punishment.
“We take things for granted, especially in Africa. We don’t know the repercussions in life. At 27, in the prime of my career, I would’ve done a lot in my football career if it wasn’t for match fixing. If I had an education about match fixing, I wouldn’t have gotten involved in it.
“I am a qualified football coach now, and the Football Assocation of Zambia are training me to be an instructor or an ambassador for anti-corruption. When I sleep I feel like I haven’t done enough, that’s why I want to do more to educate the players.
“If you’re not caught you feel privileged, but there is the integrity part. The worst punishment is the punishment of the mind. Your mind, your integrity, is robbed, and that’s why I have to make these people aware and to have a mind that is free of corruption.”
By Chaka Simbeye. Follow @chaka_simbeye