How Bloemfontein Celtic’s first cup final launched a superstar
Bloemfontein Celtic will play in only their fifth cup final on Saturday when they meet Bidvest Wits in the Telkom Knockout decider at the Princess Magogo Stadium in KwaMashu, north of Durban.
But it is their first final that remains the most memorable‚ for launching onto the national conscience a player who would go on to become a superstar in the local game.
Ernest Chirwali‚ as he was called in those days‚ was the orchestral conductor of the Celtic side‚ picking and fetching the ball‚ making telling passes with short bursts of acceleration and a unique vision and contributing to the attack with clever late runs into the areas or shots from outside.
His elegance‚ with an upright gait‚ attracted him to fans but in an era of limited television coverage few had a chance to see him outside of Bloemfontein.
It was only Celtic’s run to the final of the Mainstay Cup that handed the team a national profile and brought Chirwali to the country’s attention.
Chirwali‚ or Mtawali to give him his real name‚ was among a wave of Malawian internationals who came to South Africa in 1983 in defiance of the sports boycott and whom were immediately banned by FIFA.
He first played under Shakes Mashaba at Welkom Real Hearts but was quickly snapped up by Celtic and became the pivot of an entertaining team packed with foreigners like Eden Katanko‚ Albert Sibiya and Armando Caspar of Mozambique and Ambrose Mosala and Ronnie Malefetsane from Lesotho.
Chirwali led the side past league frontrunners Rangers in the quarter-finals and Moroka Swallows in a home semifinal before going on to Ellis Park to meet upstarts African Wanderers in the decider.
There were some 30 000 fans on hand that day for a game in which Celtic took a third minute lead through Jacob Pilane but surrendered the advantage early in the second half to Dees Abdul.
Wanderers were without coach Allan Varner who had walked out before the final because he had not been paid by the club bosses and veteran goalkeeper Patson Banda was temporarily in charge.
In extra time‚ after a cat and mouse game‚ Ismael Mokitlane swept home the winner to hand the Free State club a first ever major trophy.
Chirwali was named Footballer of the Year soon after the final‚ just piping Mike Mangena to the accolade
Celtic went on to lose 4-2 the next year to Kaizer Chiefs in the Champion of Champions final and then waited almost two decades before winning the Top Eight Cup in 2005 with a 1-0 triumph over SuperSport in Potchefstroom.
Chirwali went to Italy in the late 80s and played under a false South African passport using the surname Molemela.
He had to go back to SA when the ruse was uncovered but came back to star at Mamelodi Sundowns and then finish at Orlando Pirates‚ remaining still one of the great stars of the local league.