BY KEVIN O’NEILL
When Zambia won its first ever Africa Cup of Nations in 2012, Michael Loftman had just turned 22 and was merely another young, aspiring English coach.
But by the summer of this year, astonishingly, the now 26-year-old was managing in Zambia’s top football division, the Super League.
It was a most unlikely football journey for a young man from north-east London, who until earlier this year had been working in the Academy at Dagenham & Redbridge.
“Basically, in December 2015, I went on a holiday to Zambia and, as always, tried to network while there,” he explained.
“I managed to make some useful contacts and when I returned home an agent contacted me and said he had a club who would be interested in hiring me. So, I booked a flight, packed my stuff and got on the plane,” Michael added.
His destination was the Lusaka Dynamos Football Club – one of seven Super League teams based In the capital and largest city in Zambia, where the most colourful and exuberant street celebrations took place after the national team defeated Ivory Coast following a tense penalty shoot-out in the 2012 Cup of Nations decider in Libreville, Gabon.
In a cruel irony, it was also near Libreville that the plane carrying the Zambian national team, mentors and national football federation officials plummeted into the sea in 1993, as the entourage travelled to Senegal for a crucial World Cup qualifier.
The crash killed all 25 passengers and crew onboard – the tragedy taking away some of the country’s finest ever footballers and serving as the bleakest day in Zambian sporting history.
Before then, the Zambian people had always loved their football but the air disaster seemed to bring the public even closer to the national team and its players.
And in a poignant way, the bitter memory of the crash – honoured by the class of 2012 by laying flowers and praying at the crash site before the Cup of Nations final – would make Zambia’s victory against Ivory Coast even sweeter.
Needless to say, the triumphant players and their French manager Herve Renard were greeted as national heroes on their return to Lusaka and remain so to this day, despite the national side having since failed to repeat anything approaching the 2012 success. Indeed, the Zambian team, which is usually dominated by players who ply their club trade outside Zambia, has failed to even qualify for next year’s Cup of Nations tournament.
Domestically, the Zambian Super League can boast its fair share of talented players – those not yet discovered by bargain hunting European clubs, or else sold to wealthier African clubs, most likely in the more financially rewarding leagues of DR Congo or South Africa (where the bulk of the national team earn their crust).
And because many of the players have youth on their side, said Loftman, they are able to deliver a fairly watchable product to followers of the domestic game, where, he added, physicality and admirable technique tend to rule the roost over sharp tactical acumen.
So, while a Zambian club has not reached the final of the CAF Champions League since 1990 (Nkana Red Devils) or ever qualified for the final of the CAF Confederations Cup (Africa’s equivalent of the Europa League), local enthusiasm for the domestic league has been decent in recent years, helped by the League becoming much more competitive and less predictable.
However, despite most games also being shown live on national television, there remains something close to an obsession, in Zambia and most African countries, with European football – and especially the English Premier League, where only one Zambian player (Emmanuel Mayuka at Southampton) has ever played.
As a result, the lesser teams in the top-flight – including Lusaka Dynamos, who are currently engaged in a relegation battle – struggle to attract more than a few hundred to matches when playing against their fellow strugglers, though gates can rise to a couple of thousand when Dynamos host the league’s leading lights.
Home attendances for the more superior teams, meanwhile, can fluctuate between 2,000 and 5,000 depending on the attractiveness of each fixture.
It is fair to say that at certain points in the League’s 54-year history that it was difficult to promote the notion of a competitive environment, as the once dominant Nkana achieved five of their record haul of 12 national titles between 1988 and 1993 – akin to AC Milan’s dominance of Italian football in the early to mid-nineties or Manchester United’s rule of the Premier League for most of the nineties when their strength was such that other teams could only occasionally beat them to the silverware.
But recently, the landscape has changed in Zambia, as it has in England and Italy, with Nkana only managing two league titles (2001 and 2013) since the turn of the century.
Indeed, since the year 2000, the league crown has been shared among five clubs in three different cities, including two (Red Arrows and Zanaco) from the capital, where seven of the division’s 18 teams are based.
A couple of champions (Nkana and Power Dynamos) have come from Zambia’s second city, Kitwe, in the heart of the nation’s mineral-rich Copperbelt province, while Ndola – the next largest city – is home to ZESCO United, owned and funded by the state-owned electricity supplier, ZESCO, and winners of the last two championships, on top of three titles claimed between 2007 and 2010.
For Lusaka Dynamos though, winning trophies has not always been the name of the game.
The club was only formed in the nineties and although they won a first major trophy in 2008 (the Zambian Challenge Cup), they are most renowned for giving opportunities to the players in their youth system.
For example, three players from Zambia’s Africa Cup of Nations winning squad – the goalkeepers Kalililo Kakonje and Kennedy Mweene and defender Hijani Himoonde – were given a first taste of professional football with Dynamos, proving the club’s policy has benefitted the national side along the way.
Ideally, the young players help Dynamos to hold their own in the League, so they attract attention from the country’s bigger clubs or, perhaps, foreign clubs, who might purchase the youngsters for much-needed cash to help club coffers.
And while the club’s willingness to give youth a chance has won many plaudits over the years, it has also played its part in Dynamos’ tendency to fluctuate between the country’s top two divisions.
Indeed, the current season has been another tough one for Dynamos, who again find themselves with a largely inexperienced squad battling near the foot of the Super League.
However, the prospect of a relegation battle didn’t faze Loftman before joining Dynamos, initially in an advisory capacity.
“The first few months was just helping a club that was really struggling and had only managed one win in the first few months of the season. In terms of results, from the week I actually started coaching, the win percentage picked up to 33 per cent, which for a club with just two wins in the previous 23 games was quite an achievement,” Michael said.
With results going reasonably well and Dynamos getting close to climbing out of the relegation zone, Loftman found that the hard work spent learning the game – he started studying Sports Science at 16 – was starting to pay-off.
Everything he learned at home, in England, was enabling him to have a positive impact on the team, said the UEFA ‘A’ licence coach.
“It all helped,” he claimed, “from when I spent five years working for Foundation Football, which involved working in schools teaching PE and sport. In 2010, I started working at the Watford Academy, as a Sports Scientist, which was my first real experience of an Elite football environment. Following that, I found a role at Tottenham Hotspur, the club I supported as a child. My role there was as a Football Development Coach and Global Football Coach, which mainly involved implementing the Tottenham Hotspur philosophy outside of the club. For example, I worked with the many foreign teams that came over and wanted to experience training at the club. On a lucky day, I would catch a glimpse of first-team training and speak to some top coaches.”
From there, Michael’s football education continued with Dagenham & Redbridge, where he worked across the whole academy system, from the Development Centre to the Under-18s. He said a period spent shadowing the first-team manager, Wayne Burnett, for a few months, also opened his eyes to the different challenges that managers face, and how to deal with various types of challenging situations.
His experience working with young players in the English Academy system also stood out to him, he said, as Dynamos first-team squad’s average age was around 22.
Among the players to shine under his management was a striker called Conlyde Luchanga, who in the summer sealed a move to Israeli club Hapoel Ra’anana, while Loftman believes the speedy striker Kennedy Musonda and box-to-box midfielder Webstar Muzaza could follow Luchanga to European football in the near future.
“In terms of the overall standard in the Zambian league, there are plenty of players with excellent technical and physical ability, but there’s just a lack of tactical understanding, which dramatically effects decision-making during matches. That’s the key area that the domestic Zambian players need to work on,” Michael told The Football Pink.
“From the point of view of being a young Englishman working in Africa, I have to say that working and living in Zambia has been one of the best experiences and biggest learning curves of my life so far. It’s an amazing country – despite the power cuts and water shortages that certainly took some getting used to. But there’s a lot of young talent in the country and I’d love to see some of them go on to fulfil their potential in the future,” he added.
Sadly, Loftman wouldn’t get the opportunity to see through the Lusaka job, as the club owner decided to go another direction, despite the team sitting on the cusp of finally climbing out of the relegation places.
The English coach was surprised by the decision and disappointed not to be given a chance to drag Dynamos away from relegation.
“We were finally one point from safety with eight games to go when after a tough run of games, including a 6-1 defeat against the team top of the league and then, a great 4-1 win over the fourth-placed team, the owner decides he wants a coach who will play football the way he wants, regardless of the position in the table. Since I left, Dynamos won once in five games. But they can still possibly survive, which I hope they do,” said Michael.
In fact, after last weekend’s 2-1 win against Red Arrows, Lusaka Dynamos are again within a single point of safety, as they try to catch up the likes of 14th-placed Nchanga Rangers, Nakambala Leopards and Green Eagles.
Indeed, a victory in this midweek’s away game against mid-table Forest Rangers could propel Dynamos into eleventh place.
“I would have loved to have stayed for longer,” said Loftman.
“But it’s important to be constantly developing as a coach – and I feel I took some key lessons from Zambia.
“The main thing was realising that being a head coach is the job that I want to do, and the job that fits with me. I definitely developed some media and communication skills, as working with players who aren’t fluent in English was initially a difficult challenge. I’m currently in South Africa working on getting a role there, and in the meantime I’m networking and learning about the leagues there. I have a few meetings in the next week or two and it would be great to secure a role by December. That is the objective,” he said.
The other objective, he said, is to continue gaining as much coaching knowledge and experience as possible in Africa, and implementing his methods with players of varying nationalities, before one day returning to European football.
“For sure,” he said, “one day working in England is part of the plan. But for now, South Africa is an amazing country with so much going on – inside and outside of football – and I think I’d be crazy to look elsewhere at the moment.”
In the longer term though, perhaps ‘elsewhere’ will come looking for him, if the next few years sees the ambitious Loftman continue to catch the eye at such a tender age for a football coach.