Attacking doesn’t come naturally to Peter Mponda. The former Malawian soccer captain took his team to rare heights, including qualification for the 2010 African Cup of Nations — the continent’s top tournament in the sport — but as a central defender, warding off threats has been his forte. Now, at 36, Mponda is on the attack, and the territory is as alien to him as the role itself: Mponda is determined to be the next African soccer star to score a victory in politics.
Mponda announced plans, in January, to enter Malawi’s May 2019 parliamentary elections from a constituency in Blantyre, the country’s commercial hub and second-largest city, where he grew up. In George Weah, a former AC Milan soccer star who is Liberia’s new president, Mponda has found a role model. And the seat he has picked, Blantyre City South, offers tangible advantages: No incumbent has won there a second time — in five previous parliamentary elections — though Mponda denies that’s the reason he chose the constituency.
On a continent where soccer is the most popular sport, icons on the playing field have opportunities to make a difference once they step off. There’s Weah in Liberia, of course. But there’s also Roger Milla, the legendary Cameroonian footballer who led his team to stunning victories in the 1990 World Cup in Italy and drew a legion of fans for his hip-shaking celebrations. Milla is now using his star power to help his country create jobs and tackle plastic waste. Similarly, Mponda insists he is entering politics to improve the lives of Malawi’s youth, though critics accuse him of latching onto an alternative, post-soccer career.
But as someone who’s not accustomed to going on the offensive, Mponda appears hesitant, unwilling to dive so completely into politics that he would be forced to give up his sport. He is currently the assistant coach to the national team, and owns a Malawi club team that was relegated last season to a lower division. “I still have more time for my football career,” says Mponda. “I want people to see change in my area, which lacks many basic amenities such as clean water and good road infrastructure.”
Mponda isn’t the only of the current generation of Malawian soccer players to make a foray into politics — and Blantyre City South appears to hold a special appeal for the sport’s stars. Fisher Kondowe, a 41-year-old midfielder from the Nyasa Big Bullets club, one of Malawi’s biggest, has also announced plans to contest from the same constituency. But the political spotlight is firmly on Mponda, one of the country’s all-time soccer heroes who has grown into a mentor for junior players.
East Africa has traditionally been among the continent’s weakest regions in soccer — and Malawi isn’t the strongest nation even in its region. In Mponda, the country had a rare star whose appeal extended beyond its borders. He has played for clubs in Canada, South Africa and Zimbabwe — all countries with stronger soccer systems. A captain at both the club and national levels for over a decade, Mponda’s career reached its peak in 2010, when Malawi reached the African Cup of Nations for the first time in 26 years — and he received his country’s player-of-the-year award. He now owns Wizards FC, a club that last year was relegated to the second division.
Those years in leadership positions have equipped Mponda for a turn toward politics, says Arkangel Tembo, a soccer analyst, adding that a victory for the former captain wouldn’t surprise him. But political analyst Godfrey Mwanyongo is critical of Mponda’s decision. Just because Mponda did well in soccer doesn’t mean he’s a good fit for public office, argues Mwanyongo. “I would not be wrong if I call him someone who would always look for opportunities even in areas he can’t fit,” says Mwanyongo, suggesting that Mponda’s shift to politics may be aimed at getting rich quick after his prime earning years in soccer. Mponda rejects the notion that his political ambitions are motivated by money, but his platform appears short on specifics — beyond improving civic amenities in his constituency.
The man Mponda wants to replace, gospel singer and legislator Allan Ngumuya, says Mponda is wasting his time and resources campaigning against him. Unlike the soccer pitch, Mponda won’t find entertainment in politics, says Ngumuya. This mocking stings; Mponda has not yet developed a politician’s thick skin. “I must say I know that area better than him,” Mponda says in response to Nguyuma’s criticism. “I grew up there.”
The soccer prodigy grew up on a farm, where he says his parents expected him to help out with the chores. But as his football skills became apparent, they encouraged his decision to dedicate more time to training and practice. At 17, he met Kinnah Phiri, then a coach for the Nyasa Big Bullets, who Mponda says taught him to dream big and gave him the confidence to belive he could succeed in soccer.
Politics won’t be as smooth a transition, cautions Mwanyongo, warning that Mponda should be prepared to “sell his integrity.” For now, Mponda is staying focused on his mentorship of young soccer players, which he’ll continue even if he becomes a member of parliament. “I am a footballer and will always be a footballer,” he insists. That balance won’t be easy. There’s a reason the ace defender scored just one goal for Malawi in 102 international games. But Mponda is determined. He wants to score once more — this time off the field.