The top eight man
FOR the past four weeks, Airtel Top Eight fever gripped the country as the top eight sides in last season’s TNM Super League fought for the top prize.
The competition using the same format dominated the local football landscape in the early 2000s under fuel and lubricants dealer, BP. The then BP Top Eight Cup was synonymous with one name — Gift Mkandawire.
Mkandawire used to be the epicenter of all the action in the competition that came as a huge relief when there was sponsorship drought.
He travelled the length and breadth of the country ensuring that all matches were played under the best possible conditions.
Mkandawire says being an ardent soccer follower, he used to passionately follow on television Telkom Top Eight matches in South Africa’s Premier Soccer League.
His passion grew stronger from what he used to see on television and one day, he dreamt of introducing the competition in Malawi.
“I took a step forward and introduced the idea to my commercial manager at the time, Reason Chitonya. It did not take long to convince him and we immediately announced the birth of the competition,” Mkandawire explains.
He says sponsorship of the competition also made business sense as BP wanted to fight off stiff competition from other players in the fuel marketing sector.
Mkandawire says the company’s management fell in love with the competition after discovering that it had greatly contributed towards growing their brand on the market.
“At that time, every team used to fight to make it to the top eight. We brought competition in the Super League to another level. The brand got recognised across the country through football and BP management was pleased,” Mkandawire narrates.
He fondly recalls watching the likes of Peter Mponda, Fisher Kondowe and Joseph Kamwendo in their prime displaying rare skills.
On a lighter note, Mkandawire has memories of an incident that led to Wanderers rejecting the uniform the sponsors bought because it had a red stripe.
“One of the team’s officials at the time was Henry Chibowa. I remember he took us to task for the red stripe which was not even ‘visible’. From this, we learnt about the deeply-entrenched rivalry between Bullets and Wanderers. We still laugh about it whenever I meet Chibowa,” he says.
Born in Zambia’s town of Mufulira, Mkandawire fell in love with the name Wanderers because of one of the big teams that played in that country’s elite league.
His parents took the family back to Malawi after years of toiling in the copper mines. They settled at their home in Mzuzu’s Nkhorongo Township where the young Mkandawire continued with his education.
“When we came to Malawi, we were already used to the name Wanderers. So we looked around and asked ourselves which team we would support as a family and opted to continue with our Wanderers tradition. This is how almost the whole family, including my father, who is now proudly 100 years old, ended up in the blue side of town,” Mkandawire says.
Despite being ardent soccer followers, Mkandawire’s parents never allowed him to play football.
Efforts to build a career in football against his parents’ will saw him sustaining an injury and he eventually admitted that he was not meant to become a footballer.
This left him with the option of working hard to achieve something as a Nomads supporter having failed as a player.
He convinced himself that it was possible for him to make it as an administrator at Lali Lubani Road.
Mkandawire found himself winning the trust and confidence of the soccer fraternity after successfully running the BP Top Eight Competition for several years.
In 2006, violent incidents during a match between Bullets and Wanderers at Blantyre’s Kamuzu Stadium led to the withdrawal of the competition’s sponsor, BP.
But Mkandawire was just too good so he had to remain in football. Realising the potential he had, Super League of Malawi (Sulom) co-opted him as an executive member.
He later rose to the position of vice president where he worked with the likes of Innocent Botomani, Williams Banda, Tiya Somba Banda and Willie Phalula.
After leaving Sulom, Mkandawire served as Wanderers vice chairperson during the reign of Hannock Ng’oma, who later resigned. Mkandawire took over and ran the club for three years.
Mkandawire continues serving Wanderers as vice chairperson after being voted in last year. He has also served as vice chairperson of Southern Region Volleyball League.