by Maher Mezahi & Salim Masoud Said
In modern football, it’s seldom that a precocious Sub-Saharan talent stays in Africa for too long before he’s lured by the lucrative pastures of Europe. But 23-year-old Zambian Stoppila Sunzu is one of the growing exceptions to the rule. The reportedly Arsenal-bound centre-back and defensive midfielder plays for TP Mazembe, a Congolese continental behemoth with a proud history and bountiful resources thanks to the financial backing and vision of wealthy businessman Moise Katumbi.
The All-Powerful Mazembe: Africa’s Best
Due to Katumbi’s opulence, Mazembe don’t have the financial worries to accept pittance offers that many African clubs have to, and players like Sunzu simply haven’t had the need to move for small money, or have delayed their migration to Europe until an offer that Mazembe couldn’t refuse came their way. For instance, the team’s talisman, Tresor Mputu, who had trials with Arsenal in 2008 but Mazembe deemed the £1.25m offered not high enough, earns a basic salary of £10,000 a month plus substantial win bonuses in the African Champions League, a competition Mazembe have won twice in the last four years. In an age where being offered £60,000 is insulting enough to make Ashley Cole nearly veer off the road with angry-Daily-Mail-reader apoplexy, £10,000 may seem frugal but it’s a figure of mind-boggling proportions in the DR Congo.
The essence of Mazembe’s philosophy is having a cadre of the most talented indigenous players and then sprinkling them with a smattering of the best talent from elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, and herein is where prodigious talent like Sunzu come in. Without the defensive intelligence of Sunzu, Mputu and co. would not have the framework to flourish. Coming in at 6’2”, the Zambian is a colossal presence at the heart of Mazembe’s defence, showing an excellent fusion of speed, strength, aerial ability, penalty-box positioning and tackling.
Yet Sunzu is far beyond a mere centre-back. Sub-Saharan African teams stereotypically rely on the break-necking pace, trickery and power of their players to break down the opposition and lack the regista – the tempo-setter, the dictator of play, etc – that is vital if a team is to succeed at the very highest level. Mazembe, for all their success, are no different. Although they have the resources to acquire a regista from, say, North Africa, Mazembe have been frustratingly myopic and maintained their Sub Saharan roots. In a week where a Zenit St Petersburg fan group sent a letter to their club demanding they refrain from buying black players, it isn’t inconceivable to think a TP Mazembe fan group did similar but demanded their club not sign registas instead, because it is a department they have been severely lacking in.
That Achilles heel ultimately led to their elimination at the semi-final stage of this year’s African Champions League to Tunisian giants Esperance, but Sunzu goes some way to providing the panacea for that crippling weakness and re-addressing a balance in a team that can be gung-ho, particularly on away turf.
He has been deployed as a defensive midfielder in Mazembe’s 4-3-3 system and shown equal comfortableness in the position. Usually joined by the effervescent Rainford Kalaba and one of Nathan Sinkala/Deo Kanda in the midfield three, Sunzu is often left with too much to do positionally and as a driving force; Kalaba and Kanda are lightweight attacking midfielders masquerading as central midfielders. His importance, though, cannot be underestimated. When he went off due to injury at half-time against gritty Ghanaian side Berekum Chelsea, all hell broke loose and Mazembe went on to lose the game 1-0, a scoreline that doesn’t depict the whole story. Not only does Sunzu provide the structural balance, he is blessed with wonderful long-range passing that always seems to locate Mputu, who lurks in the area between the wings and attacking midfield position (the 8 and a half position, someone like Brendan Rodgers may call it) and regularly breaches the oppostion’s backline thanks to Sunzu’s passes. Exhibit A: the delicious pass by Sunzu to send Mputu on his way for this delightful 2nd goal by Deo Kanda against Al Ahly. The Mputu-Sunzu connection is a key feature of TP Mazembe’s play when the Zambian is stationed in the defensive midfield position.
On the international stage, Sunzu has delivered a phalanx of excellent performances, the apex of coming when Zambia lifted the Africa Cup of Nations in February to jettison a poignant tale and serotonin all over the world of football. Strong aerially, quick across the ground, he delivered an outstanding performance in the final as he made several crucial interceptions due to his good penalty-box positioning and marshalled Didier Drogba out of the game, matching the Ivorian for strength and stride. Fittingly, it was he who then had the sang-froid to score the winning penalty. His performance in last month’s Mandela Cup match against South Africa was another collector’s item. In a match where the defending African champions were far from their best, he muted the nauseating vuvuzela sounds with another consummate performance as Zambia strolled to a 1-0 win.
Long Due Acknowledgement
Inevitably, recognition for his consistent excellence has sauntered towards him. This week, he was voted the TP Mazembe Player of the Year for 2012, winning the award with 340 votes; Mputu, his closest challenger and an omnipotent figure in DR Congo, had 300 votes. Last month, a more grandiose accolade came in the form of his name being on the five-man shortlist for the CAF African-based Footballer of the Year.
There was a furore when Zambia skipper Christopher Katongo, who was yesterday announced the BBC African Player of the Year despite suffering relegation at club level, didn’t make the ten-men ahortlist of the eminent, if misleading, overall CAF African Footballer of the Year award due to his exploits with Zambia. Yet Sunzu has indefatigably been the most consistent Zambia player during this calendar year, inasmuch as eclipsing Katongo, all things considered. The level he is playing at means his moments may not have reached the monumentality of Didier Drogba’s and Yaya Toure’s, both of who have been included in the shortlist, but he certainly deserved to be on the shortlist instead of names such as Jon Obi Mikel and Gervinho.
If Sunzu has a weakness as a defender, then I haven’t seen it yet. Throughout the TP Mazembe and Zambia matches he has been error-free, that’s not to say that he’s a world-class defender or will be an emphatic success wherever he ends up; after all, football isn’t maths: it’s not logical. A move to a different country, continent and culture will generate different questions to those that he has answered with defiance in Africa. So, I’ll just put it this way: if my team was to sign a player based in Africa, defenestrating who we need and don’t need out of the equation, then it would be Stoppila Sunzu.
We made a short video to illustrate Stoppila Sunzu’s playing style. On show is aerial dominance, strong man-marking and intelligent reading of the game. In addition to a defensive masterclass, a short clip of Sunzu’s cameo vs. ES Tunis has been included. Said video is candid and displays Sunzu’s tactical discipline and simple play at the pivot position.