Mbesuma's redemption route
© AFP

For the first time in his football career, Collins Mbesuma is preparing to start from the bottom and work his way back to the top.

Zambia's star striker is no longer the prodigy whose talent amazed observers, nor the youngster whose unique style invited praise that bordered on idolisation. Indeed, it says much for the fickle nature of football that many of Mbesuma's former admirers in the media have proved in recent times to be his fiercest detractors.

The result is that, just a few short years after he was hailed a saviour, the 24-year-old finds himself with a point to prove - indebted to the public and determined to repay them for the faith they have invested in him. In a frank interview with FIFA.com, the Zambian striker is the first to admit that he has not lived up to expectation thus far.

He is also aware that he has limited time to draw up a gameplan that will see him reclaim his place as his nation's undisputed star. "A lot has happened and a lot has been said," Mbesuma said. "I just need to concentrate on playing football. I want to enjoy myself again."

Mbesuma's main priority, he insists, is to help Zambia through a difficult transitional period as the national side embarks on an aggressive rebuilding programme. In the shorter term, however, the team is still on course to qualify for the CAF Africa Cup of Nations in Angola and next year's FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa.

It is the latter achievement that takes precedence, although there is realism about the extent of that challenge, and the need for heroes to help them rise to it. It is here that the likes of Mbesuma will be key to a squad searching for direction.

The move to Portsmouth was a great one for me and many people think I blew it, but that was not the case.
Collins Mbesuma on his ill-fated Pompey experience.

In his native country, the striker is regarded as a flawed genius; a player who should be among the best in the continent but has failed to live up to his potential. On a couple of occasions, he has even found himself dropped from the Zambian squad, and has seen his popularity plummet with the emergence of two other stars in the shape of Christopher Katongo and Clifford Mulenga.

It was all so different back in season 2004/05, his first with Kaizer Chiefs, when he smashed records and claimed the South African Player of the Year award by scoring 35 goals in just one campaign. It was this period that generated all the hype around the striker and prompted comparisons with Africa's all-time greats.

It was also during this spell that he caught the eye of clubs in England's Premier League, and after rejecting a trial at Bolton Wanderers, Mbesuma put pen to paper on a three-year deal with Portsmouth. However, in two years on the books of the south coast club, he did not manage a single goal, nor even a start, making just four brief substitute appearances, all of which came in his first few months in England.

Yet while some in his homeland have been quick to attribute this failure to a lifestyle dogged by reports of ill-discipline, Mbesuma has moved swiftly to rubbish such reports and instead believes that he is a victim of his own success, and standards set early in his career which created unrealistic expectations.

He said: "The move to Portsmouth was a great one for me and many people think I blew it, but that was not the case. I don't want to say negative things, but when I got there a lot of things changed, the club changed its tune and some promises were not fulfilled. Also, there was a new manager who I thought had his own players. So, it was clear for me that I had to leave."

Attempts to revive his career in Portugal with Maritimo and Turkey with Bursaspor also failed, prompting a move back to the scene of his greatest triumphs, South Africa, where he signed up with Mamelodi Sundowns. "I'm here to start afresh and to get things right so that I can climb to the top again," he said. "This country is the right environment for me."

If Mbesuma can rebuild his tarnished reputation and return to his best form, Zambia may yet have the hero they need to lead them all the way to South Africa.