It is always tough getting a return flight to Europe once African footballers land on home soil; and it is even tougher when that football place is South Africaâ€™s Premier League (PSL).
Therefore, the news of Flames gem Robin Ngalandeâ€™s shock switch from Atletico Madrid C team of Spain to BidVest Wits University FC explains the despair and shock here at home.
Flames coach Kinnah Phiri captured the mood over Ngalandeâ€™s shock decision that could benefit him more financially than his otherwise budding career. Unfulfilled contractual financial obligations are believed to be behind the strikerâ€™s move.
“It is a setback for him to leave top class development structures in Spain and come back to Africa,” Kinnah told The Nation on July 18 2012.
The Flames hit the nail on the head. Ngalandeâ€™s return leaves Dan Chitsulo (Germany) and Clement Kafwafwa (Denmark) as the only Europe-based Malawian footballers..
In their early 30s, there is no hope in either Kafwafwa or Chitsulo, who play for third-tier clubs, making it big in European football.
In his early 20s, there was massive hope in Ngalande being the big football thing that Malawians were hoping for. In fact, the BBC praised Ngalande as the next Samuel Etoâ€™o. Africa and Malawians believed.
Only to receive the reality check with the youngstersâ€™ shock signing of a two-year deal at the modest PSL side with neither a solid reputation for cup nor league titles. The bigger problem is not with Wits, but the PSL which Zimbabwean top sports journalist Robson Sharuko calls “a retirement zone for big-name players”.
Benni McCarthy, Luis Boa Morta (has since left Orlando Pirates), Siyabonga Nomvethe, Sibusiso Zuma, Shaun Bartlet (retired) and Aaron Mokoena all came to the PSL for a swamsongs of their careers after calling it time in Europe.
The PSL is probably the biggest league in Africa, commercially. But on the pitch, the standards are not good enough. South African clubs and Bafana Bafanaâ€™s form in continental competitions speak better about the exaggerated PSL standards.
The PSL has never been the best place for playersâ€™ discipline. One hopes Ngalande will not be infected with off-the-field distractions that have cost Malawi playersâ€™ careers.
“The biggest problem,” noted Malawi veteran scout Ben Chiwaya recently, “is that Malawian players get distracted with so many things.”
The PSL can distort their market value of players, making them exorbitant for Europe potential suitors.
Bafana Bafana leading striker Katlego Mphela cut his football teeth in Strasbourg in French Ligi 1. He struggled to break into the main team, returned to join SuperSport and now Mamelodi Sundowns.
With his market value inflated by the PSL, Mphelaâ€™s dream for a flight back to Europe looks increasingly remote. It is/was a similar case with other South African footballers such as Kerit Erasmus, Joster Dladla, Emile Baron, Benard Parker and Siyabonga Nkosi.
In Zimbabwe, goalkeeper Energy Murambadoro was finding his feet in Israel, featuring in the Champions League. Now he is at Wits. No progress.
In Zambia, there is Collins Mbesuma and Rainford Kalaba who played in England and Portugal for Portsmouth and Braga FC respectively.
Even after lifting the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations championship, they simply cannot book a return ticket to Europe.
At home, Joseph Kamwendo thought he was back to re-launch his career when, in a spur of the moment, he exited Danish Super League side, Norrdsjaelland in 2006 for Mighty Wanderers. In his third stint with Wanderers, Kamwendo is not even guaranteed a PSL return.
The PSL has not proved to be the best place for relaunching a career for Europe market. Even South African own son Quinton Fortune, on a DHL Express visit of Blantyre recently, faulted Malawi for exporting more players to South Africa instead of Europe.
“Africa needs to send its players to Europe at the earliest age as soon as possible. It might hurt in the short term but they come back better and improve the national teams,” he noted.
The ex-Manchester United star knows better. He left Cape Town as at 14 to sign for Real Sociedad in La Liga Spain. Once a player is already in Europe the prospect of a big team break are many. For Fortune, Red Devils came knocking on his doors.
A small club in Europe can never be compared to any big league in Africa where football administration, professionalism and the standards are refusing to grow.
Ngalandeâ€™s management company Siyavuma Sports argued otherwise. The company gave an impression that because European clubs are feeling the heat of the current Europe economic meltdown, there are few teams that could get involved in new signings.
“He had an option on his contract with Atletico and there were several options but people do not realise that there is financial meltdown in Europe,” the company said.
But then there is no indication that the rest of young players, in Atleticoâ€™s development structures, including from Africa, are flocking back home enmasse due to the economic climate.
“We do not look at this as a backwards step for his career. Robin has broken into the Malawi national team, therefore he needs to back that up with playing football at the top club level,” insisted company,” said the company.
Siyavuma believes there is high possibility of Ngalandeâ€™s return to Europe in the next two years. But then the truth of Africa football and reality of European football have never been the same. For Malawi football, the waiting for its own Europe football star continues.