Sunzu turns from hero to zero
Harare – In February last year, Stophila Sunzu, the giant Zambian defender, was a national hero after keeping his cool to stroke home the decisive penalty, in a shootout, which gave Chipolopolo its first Nations Cup success story in Gabon.
Last Friday, October 18, Sunzu spent three hours being questioned by Zambian immigration officials and had his passport seized, which prevented him from crossing the border into neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for a CAF Confederation Cup semi-final tie against Stade Malien. He was not the only hero of Zambia’s Nations Cup winning-team who found himself stranded in Ndola.
Midfielder Rainford Kalaba was the other Zambian international who was also questioned by the immigration officials and had his passport confiscated, as an ugly fallout ‑ which started as a club-versus country row ‑ exploded and damaged relations between the Football Association of Zambia and former African champions TP Mazembe of the DRC. It has also left the careers of the three international players, Sunzu, Kalaba and Nathan Sinkala, in limbo and sparked fears about the safety of the trio, as emotions run high, amid revelations by the footballers that they were forced to retreat into hiding last week.
The row was sparked when the trio missed their national team’s international friendly against Brazil in China last week, amid concerns of their fitness levels at their team TP Mazembe, and fears among the Zambian authorities that the Congolese club was playing games with the players.
With TP Mazembe set to play a crucial CAF Confederation Cup semi-final, second-leg tie against Stade Malien just days after the friendly international in China, the Zambian authorities said the club was trying to hold onto the players for their own cause.
The Congolese club claimed Sinkala and Kalaba were down with malaria while Sunzu had problems with his knee and when the players did not show up in Lusaka, FAZ sought FIFA’s intervention.
And the world football controlling body ordered the players to travel back home to be assessed by a doctor appointed by FAZ but when the players arrived late, and missed their appointment with national team doctor Joseph Kabungo, FAZ Chairman Kalusha Bwalya ordered them to fly to Beijing.
But the players went underground, their mobile phones were switched off, amid reports that they had crossed the border back into the DRC and Zambian officials then issued warrants of arrest, for the trio, claiming that they had left the country using obscure means and routes.
“The department (of Immigration) intends to arrest the players and anyone who may have aided their illegal crossing,” Zambia's Department of Immigration public relations officer, Namati Nshinka, said in a statement. “We have alerted our officers throughout the country, especially those at the borders to intercept the players on sight.”
On Friday, the players were questioned in Ndola in what has now sparked an ugly row with TP Mazembe owner, Moise Katumbi, claiming that FAZ were treating their players like slaves and challenging Bwalya’s administration to disclose how much the Zambian players were paid for the international friendly against Brazil. The wealthy Congolese businessperson also urged the players to sue Zambian officials who confiscated their passports.
“I think we are one people, we do not have to exaggerate that the players are sick because the three Zambian players know it was a good challenge to play Brazil and for Mazembe we are supposed to be happy to have four players playing against Brazil,” said Katumbi.
“I think they have to also talk about the amount that they paid the players for the Brazil game so that the people should know also because they are just saying Mazembe; Mazembe.
“No government can interfere in the issue of FIFA even in Congo the minister never interferes in the issue of football. The players are not slaves, they are free if they make a problem there is the law, and Zambia has got one of the best laws in Africa.
“The law is there they should face the law. I think that is not the way you can treat the people who gave them the Africa Cup. We are going through FIFA and I think the players can sue the Zambian Federation for seizing their passports because they do not have the right to seize their passports, they are free people.
“You can see even (Samuel) Eto’o, even in Congo there are some players who never want to play for the national team. My player Mbokane was playing for Monaco and he wrote a letter not to play for the national team and nobody can take his passport to refuse. They are not slaves.” FAZ immediately launched a counterattack saying they were disappointed with the way TP Mazembe were handling this sensitive issue and, in their statement published on their official website, accused the Congolese club of blocking the players from travelling to China.
“We are disappointed by the unfortunate allegations and comments attributed to TP Mazembe president, Moses Katumbi, concerning the three Zambian players whom his club blocked from attending an important international match last week,” FAZ said in a statement.
“We've always enjoyed good relations with TP Mazembe which out of their own volition have decided to abrogate. TP Mazembe and Mr Katumbi should engage in serious introspection and check the conduct of its officials before accusing FAZ of issues which are completely out of its jurisdiction.
“Mr Katumbi's comments over the players and their present plight clearly shows how uninformed he is over the processes and procedures of the association, matters of Zambian law and how we engage with different clubs and our nationals plying their trade in different parts of the world.”
FAZ said it was inappropriate for anyone, including TP Mazembe, to blame them when immigration officials feel there has been a violation of the laws. “For the information of Mr Katumbi and Mazembe, what is presently happening to the three players is of concern to us as they face serious allegations before the Immigration Department; a situation caused by the actions of the club and its representatives,” said FAZ in their statement.
“However, matters that impinge on the laws of the land are not under the jurisdiction of the Football Association of Zambia but subject to the Zambian constitution and implemented by various agencies of the state. We have no jurisdiction over the Immigration Department whatsoever and what they do is beyond us.
“Further, FAZ is not in charge of controlling national borders, enforcing national security and immigration law. These are governed by relevant Acts of Parliament and enforced by authorities who as stated above are not subject to FAZ or FIFA's laws of the game.
“FAZ has no mandate to withdraw any player's passport. We have never withdrawn any players' passport or subjected any players to undue pressure or coerced them into actions that abrogate the law of the land or the laws of the game.
“The withdrawal of the three Mazembe players' passports was done by the Immigration Department who are acting under the established laws of the Republic of Zambia to which every Zambian is subject. This Department does not report to FAZ. Mazembe is free to report the Immigration authorities to FIFA if they so wish. We sincerely hope they will not mislead the players into illegal court actions and petitions that would only jeopardise their careers.”