Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Meet Khalid Niyonzima, a Burundian Motswana who lives the game unconditionally

Niyonzima is an enigma, a philosopher but also a pragmatist of note. In 2000, a Burundian businessman based in Botswana went back home in Bujumbura where he would be mesmerized by the agility and talent of a 16-year-old Niyonzima.

The Burundian goalkeeper was promised a lucrative contract in the neighboring South Africa. He did not waste time. Off he went. Accidentally, he landed in Botswana. As a youngster with not many questions, He was shell-shocked and stayed. He had been desperate to leave Burundi; Niyonzima had only wanted to play professional football in South Africa. Nothing else.

Niyonzima is a Muslim. Patience is his virtue. “Don’t worry, you get me? This is the most common line in his vocabulary. A humble man, deeply religious, highly committed, and supremely educated, Khalid is very optimistic about the future of Botswana. First as a goalkeeper coach, and secondly as a qualified coach with a plethora of certificates from Germany and South Africa.

He first came to Botswana and joined Prisons where he excelled. He remembers those times with nostalgia.

“Prisons were a mere coincidence. Fate, if you will. You get me? Inadvertently, I found myself here when I was promised a good deal in South Africa. The situation back home in Burundi was horrible. I was young, and disappointed in the people who had come up with that deal that never worked. But Botswana offered me peace and security, so I simply decided to stay here and play football. My salary was P900 a month. ”

He was not alone. His compatriot Salum Muryango, a prolific goal scorer was around with him. Together they soldiered on. When they joined Prisons, it was just five matches before the end of the season. Prisons got relegated! The following season, the duo played a pivotal role in returning Prisons to the Premier League. Niyonzima was Goalkeeper of the Season.

“I was the best goalkeeper. Salum was scoring goals every week. We got promoted, and Salum went to play in Holland.”

Interest from Amazulu came in, fast and furious; a Burundian coach Ramadhan Nsanzurwimo was at the helm at the time.

“I went to Amazulu that season and Coach Ramadhan liked me. He wanted to sign me on the same day. Unfortunately, he was fired before we finalized everything. I came back to Botswana as Clive Barker took over.”

Niyonzima came back to Prisons disappointed but still optimistic. An amazing deal came from England, in the Championship.

“A deal came in, for 10,000 pounds a week, in the Championship. Remember I had been playing for my national team. But an agent messed the whole thing, keeping crucial information to himself. It was a missed opportunity.”

Down but not out, Niyonzima got another opportunity at Fidentia Rangers, a wealthy Cape Town club owned by disgraced fund manager and tycoon J Arthur Brown.

“Fidentia offered me a fantastic deal. I was almost done, thinking about relocation. I was in Cape Town for a month. Prisons officials started fighting with Fidentia, demanding large sums of money, money they hadn’t paid for me coming from Burundi. It was a painful comedy of errors. You get me?’’

Niyonzima came back home, optimistic yet again. He left Prisons with breathtaking performances, year in year out. He won the best Goalkeepr of the Season award, and the best Goalkeeper in the Coca Cola Cup beating the likes of Modiri Marumo, a legend.

Niyonzima headed to Mochudi Centre Chiefs under the maverick and dynamic Chairman Ernest Molome and chief financier MacLean Letshwiti. Here, together they broke records as a team. Molome had assembled a supremely talented and expensive team, star studded in the literal sense, led by Pontsho Moloi and many others. Zambian born trainer Beston Chimbese was the coach.

“we won three cups, COKE, Kabelano Charity and the League, unbeaten, the whole season!’’

Chiefs consequently competed in CAF Champions League the following season.

“We travelled, and gained lots of experience. Playing against TP Mazembe and others is not child’s play. I think we were now with Madinda Ndlovu. And then he left for Township Rollers! Coach Drago then arrived from Serbia.’’

“I contributed immensely, on and off. Noah Maposa was coming up; I took it upon myself to mentor him. He became the best in the country. I started developing interest in coaching then’’

Niyonzima left Centre Chiefs after two seasons and joined BDF where he continued his success story. He linked up with the likes of FC Lemponye and Mompati Thuma.

“At BDF, I played very well until I had a series of injuries. I decided to quit after two seasons and headed back to Mochudi Centre Chiefs, now as a Technical Team member.’’

There was a short spell with Extension Gunners, together with Drago.

“The politics, interference made it easy for me to leave. My relationship with the club financier Cassim( Dada) was seen as a negative. But I was a happy to leave good keepers there.’

Khalid has worked with the likes of Noah Maposa, Wagarre Dikago, Raphael Nthwane, Tumisang selolwane, Semelamela, Phoko and Bophelo Kealeboga.

“ if you think TT story is fascinating, I say no. I can write a book about how I took Bophelo from nowhere to being the best in the country 2 seasons ago. Raphael Nthwane had almost given up, Noah I polished, Semelamela is doing great because like TT he has been patient and learning.’’

The 35 year old then joined Gaborone United in the 2015 season as goalkeeper coach. At GU, he has worked as Interim Coach, and as Assistant Coach. And everything else! He cites the day he worked as a driver for players to get to matches and as grpundsman to make sure the fields are in good condition. He is now settled, although still ambitious but feels at home with the Reds.

“GU is a good team. I feel at home here because I was there during the tumultuous times. We managed to breed players. Phiri, Orebonye, Maome, Kgamanyane, Phoko, Velaphi, TT, and others. If it was not money problems which affected us then, we would be winning this league back to back now. The plan was a 5 year plan.’’

GU struggled badly when chief financier Rapula Okaile resigned due to personal problems.

“We could not maintain the momentum, it was a hurricane. Top players left but we still managed Top 8, we managed to win the Charity Cup. At some stage, we played with the likes of Mabunda in uniform, coming with books to the match.’

The GU goalkeeper coach is recognized and accredited for grooming TT Ditlhokwe, the new national team captain who has just signed a lucrative deal with Supersport United.

“TT lived in my house, and with me for three years. From day one, I could see he was a rough diamond. All the attributes were there. But the difference between TT and many others is his focus, humility and the ability to do extra training.’’

When Niyonzima speaks about TT, he lightens up, and re-adjusts his posture.

“TT comes from unknown place, but he knew he wanted to get somewhere. If he stays like that he will surprise the PSL even. We didn’t have money before Zackhem came back, but we did private training and together when other players were on strike. Just imagine if Orebonye was doing extra training. You get me?’’

Niyonzima suggests that TT would even surpass former Zebras utility player Mogogi Gabonamong who played for 11 years in the top flight in South Africa.

“Mogogi is the best player in the history of Botswana, at least during our generation. 12 years in Botswana, 10 years in South Africa and captain of all the clubs! And playing in the PSL for that long. That’s a rare quality hey. Not many players have that, maybe KB Seakanyeng. But TT has a better opportunity to do even better than the rest.’’

Niyonzima is upbeat that he will one day become a Head Coach. He has amassed a number of FIFA qualifications. CAF B, CAF C, Advanced FIFA Goalkeeping certificate. He is currently completing CAF A License with the likes of Teenage Mpote. He has worked with Alex Heredia and Serame Letsoaka amongst other top football instructors.

“In Germany, we were close to 40. I was second after Sean Dundee, there was a lady from Singapore and guys from Lebanon in the top 10. I want to do better and coach a team one day as Head Coach. But am patient, learning. I always tell the other guys like Michael Mogaladi, that our generation is next in line, be patient.’’

And his relationship with the new Zebras Coach Adel Amrouche, which has seemingly irked many around local football. Niyonzima responds diplomatically.

“Coach Adel and I come a long way. He was my coach at some point in Burundi. He consulted me before he came here. He still asks me about 1 or 2 players. It’s my duty to give advice since I have been here for 19 years, I know the players, the culture and the mentality. You get me? I like Coach Adel but I love Botswana.’’

Niyonzima is a married man with two children. His wife is from the railway village of Palaroad. She is based in the United Arab Emirates.


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