By Duncan Mlanjira
Malawi’s international legend Francis Songo has been described as one of the rare breeds of football, who in his long span of a career he played as a striker, midfielder and finally in defence.
And he has only played for two clubs locally — first with defunct Railways United before joining Silver Strikers where he ended his career in 2000.
Growing up in Blantyre in Kanjedza Township, where every youth knew and wanted just one passion, that being to play good football, spurred Songo to become the township’s products of stars in same breath as the Malunga brothers — Holman and Kennedy; Ricky Phuka; Fannel Munthali; Mike Mwesi just to name a few.
He went to Limbe Primary School before switching to Dharap, now called Namiwawa Primary, where he teamed up with other great stars that included another legend, George Manto Ali.
After terrorizing other schools in the now nostalgic primary school tournaments, he and Manto Ali found themselves at Railways United, then a great team on its own right.
Recounting how he admired Songo in his playing career, former Mighty Wanderers team manager Limbani Magomero says he first revered him as a prolific striker during his primary and secondary school days.
“When he joined Railways United, he scored many goals as a striker and later he changed to central midfield where he controlled the flow of the game for the team,” says Magomero.
“After seeing his prowess, Silver Strikers then poached him where he became an icon he was that saw him being called into the national team at a tender age.
“The lad then was simply extraordinary and versatile but it still surprised of most of us who followed him when he moved again from central midfield to central defence.
“It was pleasant news when he was called to the national team where he featured for a few years, on and off because as you know competition for a place in the Flames then was very fierce.
“To summarise it, the guy was simply a rare breed of a player having played as a striker, a midfielder and a defender and I would not have been surprised further if he had tried to be a goalkeeper hahahaha,” says Magomero.
Songo himself said though Kanjedza was known for producing the likes of the Malunga brothers, Fannel Munthali, Mike Mwesi and Ricky Phuka, not everyone else progressed far into becoming the stars they were because competition for consideration into every club was fierce.
“But I am proud that I was amongst the great players that Kanjedza produced.
“I played for the national team in all levels since then we had Under-15 and Under-18 national schools team before graduating into the national junior team.
“I graduated to national senior team under coaches Reuben Malola and Marthias Mwenda at the age of 19 but it took me another 5 years before I played my first game because like I said competition for a place was tough.”
Recounting how he could switch positions so easily, Songo says: “When you are young and very skillful you play where it matters most, but I was a midfielder playing through the national junior ranks under coach Ted Powell.
“Ted Powell advised me to be ‘versatile’ and try playing in defence. By then I had adapted in most positions so well that even most coaches like Doel Mhango at Railways played me in different positions — in midfield and defence whether left or right.
“At Silver Strikers, I was the only player that has played in all positions at the back and midfield, the same thing with the senior national team.
“You may recall that I played as a left back against Zimbabwe in a game we played in Harare and as right back against Cameroon at Kamuzu Stadium and in central defence in Douala against the same Cameroon.
Malawi Broadcasting Corporation’s football commentator Steve Liwewe Banda has followed me well and he particularly talks about these matches each time we meet.”
He explains that his most memorable highlights of his football career has always been playing for the national team.
“I believe that’s the highest level one can go. Even those big names in the game throughout the world all feel highly appreciated if they serve their countries doing what they do best elsewhere.”
The stars he played alongside with in his first game for the Flames included late Ganizani ‘Cool Cat’ Masiye, Chancy ‘Vinny’ Gondwe, Mabvuto Lungu, Lawrence Waya, Young Chimodzi, Meke Mwase, Ernest Mtawali, late Holman Malunga among others.
“The game that I shall always remember playing for the Flames was versus Cameroon away in Douala where no one gave Malawi a chance for reasons being that defeating Cameroon at home was described as insurmountable task.
“The Indominable Lions were just coming from beating Russia in a FIFA World Cup finals encounter and against all odds, we drew 0-0. Containing the likes of François Omam-Biyik was not an easy task.”
Omam-Biyik is one of Cameroon legends who played as a forward and was one of the most important players of the Indomitable Lions 1990s, playing at the three FIFA World Cups in 1990, 1994 and 1998.
Locally, Songo says he shall treasure many fond memories but what comes in his fond memories are two: “The first when with Railways United against the dreaded Bata Bullets at BAT Ground in which I scored an equaliser from over 40m with prolific George ‘Amunamtapu’ Waya in goals.
“You just didn’t beat George Waya very easily but I surprised him from far and my shot was very fierce and fast.
“The second was at Silver Striker against Mighty Wanderers at Kamuzu Stadium in which I also scored a screamer almost from the same distance of 40m and we won that game 1-0.”
The players he admired most at his Silver Strikers time was first late Zex Lajabu, who “stood out as one of the most intelligent players at Silver. We used to call him ‘Wizard’”.
“And there are a couple of them from other teams at local scene such as Peter Kaunda and late John Christopher Banda.
The African legends he admired?: “First is my mentor, Kennedy ‘Senator’ Malunga — I put him in the likes Zambia’s Kalusha Bwalya, Côte d’Ivoire’s Yaya Toure, Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o and Nigerian Jay Jay Okocha.”
He says there were several teams in South Africa that got interested in his services as well as in Czechoslovakia but he turned them down because he was comfortable with Silver Strikers and working at the Reserve Bank of Malawi.
“However, I went for an outright transfer to Norway to play for a team called Streinham FC.”
Former Big Bullets midfielder, Acton Munthali described Songo as one of the best short sprint masters, that when he is got the ball opponents should expect wall passes from him as he used to overlap a lot.
“In defence — right, left or centre — he was just impeccable and with his height advantage, it was difficult for many of us to win most of the aerial balls.
“This great international had the qualities of an all rounder or a liberal on the field of play just like international Charles Phiri.
“Francis was very cool and well disciplined. I was once with him at international level and in the many times we encountered each other when Bullets played against Silver Strikers, I had to device ways how to outwit him — it just wasn’t that easy.
“He inspired so many of us in the days of our great football generation. I rate him as one of the fastest defenders and hard tacklers Malawi has ever produced.”
While Talimba Wales Mwalwanda said: “He was a very composed defender, a hard worker, a player who seemed like he was talking to the ball and it listened.
“He exuded so much confidence that strikers didn’t just take him for granted but treaded very carefully in approaching him when they went on the attack.
“And his combination with the legendary Young Chimodzi was very, very perfect,” he said.