Soccer hasn’t always been at the top of Zambian national soccer team member Jacob Mulenga’s favorite sports list.
When he was young, he was addicted to motocross.
His weekdays were spent going to school, but his weekends were filled with motocross training and racing.
Soccer didn’t become a part of his life until high school. Even then, though, he said he “mainly just watched.”
Motocross was fulfilling his competitive desires. Soccer was for fun.
“I did not play for any youth teams or academies—just playing for fun at school,” he recalls. “I learned a lot basically from watching. I learned a lot from watching on TV.”
But after high school, he decided to get serious about soccer.
“After High School I thought, ‘OK, now before you decide what you want to do with your life, play football for a bit and see what happens.’…(former Zambian player and coach) Kalusha (Bwalya) saw me play…and said ‘You know you could be good at it.’ For me it was still a dream. I would joke about it with my friends in high school, ‘One day I will play professional football.’”
Despite not playing soccer until late in his career, his rise to elite level was fast.
He made Zambia’s national team when he was 20, and he scored in his first game—a 1-0 victory against Togo in a World Cup qualifier in 2004. From there he went to the next two World Cup qualifying matches in Senegal and Mali and became a fixture on the national team.
But his rapid success didn’t turn into confidence.
“It was scary. I was nervous. It was a whole new world to me,” he says. “I had never been in front of the public eye that much before. I had no idea what playing for the national team was. You hear about it; you read about it. Now you put yourself in a position where you are ready to be criticized. Everything you do—good or bad—is going to be criticized and you are going to have someone say something about it.”
He gradually became comfortable, though, and in 2010 he scored two goals in two games at the Africa Cup. The following two Africa Cups, in 2012 and 2013, though, were met with disappointment. He didn’t play in either one, including in 2012 when Zambia won the title.
“For me it was really hard, you knew in 2010 you played a big role in the Africa Cup and now you could not be part of it,” he says. “That was a big blow for me…you are happy but every time someone talks about it, it reminds you of not being part of it.”
“I used to ask God so many times, ‘Why is this happening to me when I come to you, pray to you…and everyone else is okay? What did I do to deserve this? … For me it is always why? Why this? Why that? Stop with the why. First of all I learned…that you are not in control. No matter how much you try, you are not in control of things that happen…if I did not have Jesus…I would be so lost.
“I know that I am extremely blessed. I am someone who can do anything in football. I know my strength does not come from me. It comes from above….God won’t take you to the next level if you don’t know how to handle the pressure…the higher you go the worse (the pressure) becomes.
“Everything that is built without God is not worth building. I am not going to sit here and lie and say, ‘I live a perfect, God-fearing life.’ I have problems sometimes. My faith is tested…You have so many challenges. You have so many things that come to you. You want someone to talk to. I think when you bring someone to Christianity, you really have to help them understand, ‘Listen, God is going to be the center of your life.’…It is not saying you aren’t going to have challenges. You are going to have challenges as a Christian and you are going to have trouble as a Christian…But you know in all that, you are going to be victorious.”
By Brett Honeycutt
Brett Honeycutt is the managing editor at Sports Spectrum magazine.