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The ‘helicopter’ striker: John Phiri

THE game of football, by its very nature, revolves around winning games which comes through scoring goals.

This is why strikers end up being the most popular footballers as they are the ones who ultimately fulfill the beautiful game’s main objective.

A team that does not score goals cannot win matches. Crowd pullers Nyasa Big Bullets easily find themselves in this scenario having gone four matches without a goal and are out of the Airtel Top Eight Cup.

The modern day Bullets find themselves goal-starved against a background of some of the deadliest strikers the country has ever had.

Kinnah ‘Electric’ Phiri and Lawrence ‘Lule’ Waya may be among Malawi’s top goal scorers to have emerged from Bullets, but heading specialist, John Phiri, deserves his place close to the legends.

In his heydays, Phiri was a consistent threat to goalkeepers and defenders alike with his goal-scoring prowess.

The beginning

Born in the Zambian capital of Lusaka, Phiri grew up in Thyolo District where he used to play for estate teams.

It is common for parents to discourage their children from playing football and asking them to concentrate on studies instead.

But Phiri’s parents were different. They encouraged their son to do well in football by buying him football boots and escorting him to training and matches.

“We lived in a football-mad environment in Zambia and when we returned home, my father wanted me to make it big in football. So he supported me in every way possible to make things work,” Phiri said.

He recalls being spotted by the then Bata Bullets officials during a Blantyre and Districts Football League Division Three match.

The officials took him to Blantyre where they signed him for the team’s second reserve side, Bata North Star in 1981.

Promotion to Bata Bullets

The youthful Phiri only needed a season to earn himself promotion to the senior team, Bata Bullets.

Coach Kanjedza Kamwendo was left with no option but to grant him the opportunity to brush shoulders with some of the country’s top players after he emerged top scorer in his first year at North Star.

Phiri attended trials at the team alongside other new arrivals like Chancy Gondwe and Andrew Nankwenya.

The trio accompanied the team on its pre-season tour of Tanzania where Phiri scored two goals after featuring against Simba Sports Club and Young Africans.

“It was not easy to make it through the trials as the team already had great players like John Nkata, Harry Waya, Dennis Saidi and Thom Kazembe. I counted myself lucky after the club took me on board,” Phiri says.

He remembers scoring in his first competitive match despite being given only ten minutes.

The coach then began to increase his playing time by bringing him in much earlier after several consistent performances.

Phiri said he made sure to score more goals as the coach gave him more game time and it took him four games to settle down in the star-studded Bullets.

“To me it was very simple. My message to the coach was: ‘give me more game time and I will give you more goals’. In the end, he began to include me in his starting line up,” he said.

He remembers emerging top goalscorer in cup competitions like Press, Kamuzu, Sportsman’s and Chibuku in the years that followed.

Phiri claims to have pumped in nine out of the twelve goals that Bullets scored in the Kamuzu Cup, including during the final against Red Lions where he netted two.

The cup successes were quickly followed by more good results in the 1986 and 1987 Super League where he won the golden boot award.

National team career

Phiri’s exploits did not elude the attention of national team selectors who gave him a chance to try his luck at international level in 1986.

The fresh-faced Phiri says the call up excited him as it meant brushing shoulders with top class campaigners like the Malunga brothers, Kennedy and Holman, Clifton Msiya, Young Chimodzi and Frank Sinalo.

His performance in training convinced coaches Henry Moyo, Reuben Malola and Matthias Mwenda to hand him his first international debut against the Zambian squad that later perished in the 1992 plane crash in Gabon.

“I may not have achieved much at international level but I made my present felt each time I was given a chance. I remember partnering Sinalo against Zambia in Lusaka and here at home. I did not score in the two games but I put up such a great performance,” Phiri said.

The ‘helicopter’

Phiri says one of his deadliest weapons in the game was his ability to float and hang in midair while spotting the positions of the goalkeeper and defenders before thumping the ball home with his head.

“This special mastery earned me the nickname ‘helicopter’. People realised that I had the ability to pause while airborne as if waiting for the ball to arrive. I also knew about this but up to now, I do not understand how it happened,” he clarified.

Memorable moments

Phiri says he vowed to score in every Blantyre Derby and fondly remembers each goal he scored against Limbe Leaf (now Be Forward) Wanderers.

“I used to score in every Blantyre Derby I played in. But I managed to score many great goals in my career, including one from the centre circle after receiving the ball straight from a goal kick. I flicked the ball and, while still airborne, thundered it into the net beyond the reach of the goalkeeper,” he says.

Future plans

Phiri retired from the game in the late 1990s after playing for his team in the Caf Champions League.

He has worked for his former side as team manager for several years and is currently coaching Bullets’ reserve side.

Phiri is self-employed and he multitasks as an electrician, plumber and motor rewinder after Bullets sent him to a technical school.

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