Athiel Mbaha Hears With His Heart
As if it were not hard enough being a goalkeeper at international level, Namibia’s number 1 Athiel Mbaha has to do the job without being able to hear, but his best friend and goalkeeping understudy does not mind sharing his ears, as FIFA magazine found out.
The Herero-speaking people of Namibia use the word Gatuvaterasane to describe a sense of selflessness that means “let’s help each other”. It perfectly describes the spirit of generosity and empathy that exists between Namibia’s international goalkeepers Athiel Mbaha and Ephraim Tjihonge. Although they both vie for the Brave Warriors’ number 1 jersey, they are best of friends and Tjihonge, 21, who plays his club football for South Africa’s Black Leopards, is one of the players on whom Mbaha most depends. This is because the 31 -year-old often needs the younger goalkeeper to tell him what is happening, to serve as his ears and his voice.
Mbaha has been deaf since the age of seven, but with the help of Tjihonge, with whom he often shares a room when travelling with the Namibian side, Mbaha spoke to FIFA magazine. He says that he suddenly developed a loss of hearing when he was seven years old. “Nobody really knew exactly what the problem was, and I stayed in hospital in Windhoek for eight months before being sent to Cape Town in South Africa,” he says. “The doctors could not cure me and after a while they sent me home, telling me that I should try to learn to speak as much as possible and to see what happens.”
After his release from hospital, the youngster was encouraged to go to a normal school. It was there that he started playing football. “I started playing in midfield, but one day I went into goal, and I must have pulled off a number of good saves because I was told that I should be a goalkeeper from that time on,” explains Mbaha.
He continued playing school football and also turned out for a rural team until he was 18, by which time he was showing enough promise to join African Stars, one of the top sides in Windhoek. He stayed there for four years before moving to Blue Waters in Walvis Bay. Three years later, the South African professional club Black Leopards signed him, together with Tjihonge. “But things did not go well in South Africa,” he revealed. “Some of my team-mates struggled to understand me and at times club officials blamed me for defeats. Although I was playing a lot, I was homesick and decided to leave. I was loaned to Orlando Pirates, who play in Windhoek.”
Mbaha manages to communicate with his team-mates largely by screaming at them. Although the sounds he makes do not come out as polished words, his team-mates get the gist. He used to play with a hearing aid, but it dropped to the ground during a game and some players stepped on it and it broke. “It is very expensive, so I no longer use it during games,” he says.
Dutchman Arie Schans, who has recently been appointed Namibian national coach, says that there is no problem with communication: “Athiel has been a part of the national squad for a long time, so he knows the other players and they know him. They communicate in their own way.”
A GOOD FUTURE
Mbaha was first called into the national squad in 2004 and his friend Tjihonge was called up alongside him. “We played against a regional team from Germany and since then I have been a regular in the Namibian squad,” says Mbaha.
Mbaha was the number 1 choice goalkeeper under coach Ben Bamfuchile, who sensationally took Namibia to their second Africa Cup of Nations finals last year with a 3-2 victory in Ethiopia in their last match. When the Zambian-born coach died a few weeks before the start of the Cup of Nations, the Namibia Football Association gave the reins to Schans, who had earlier been earmarked to act as adviser to Bamfuchile.
The former Bhutan coach decided to play South African-based Abisai Shiningayamwe in the Brave Warriors’ first game against Morocco, which the southern African country lost 5-1. Mbaha was then given a chance in Namibia’s second game against Ghana and despite the 1-0 loss, did well enough to keep his place for their final game against Guinea, which they drew 1-1.
“At first I thought his hearing problems could be an issue,” Schans admits. “But he is very talented in my opinion. Our goalkeeping coach, Ronny Kanalelo, works very hard with him, and I think Athiel has a good future in the Namibian team.” Tjihonge explains that Schans had wanted Mbaha to play with his hearing aid. “Possibly that is one of the reasons why Athiel did not play in the first game, but after the side lost so badly he was put in goal and he did well.”
Mbaha is adamant that he does not need the hearing aid. “Not being able to hear does not stop me from playing well,” he says firmly. “It does not stop me from concentrating on the game, and it does not stop me from playing the game I love. I only play with my heart. I have a big heart and I am a fighter. I take one step at a time.”
He hesitates when asked whether there have been many cases of team¬mates blaming him for goals: “There have been a few who have not treated me very well and in a friendly against South Africa in Windhoek there was some miscommunication and one of the players said that I did not deserve to play for Namibia because of my disability. One of our players had shouted ‘keeper’ to indicate that it was my ball to take, but I did not react and the ball went into the back of the net. But that has been the only problem.”
A ROLE MODEL
Mbaha sees himself as a bit of a role model for other deaf people. “I hope that they see what I have achieved and realise that they too can do anything they want to. I am lucky because I can talk a little bit. It is much more difficult for those who can’t speak at all. I just hope that others will follow in my footsteps.”
Mbaha, who comes from a huge family – his father had 46 (!) children – has two children of his own. They both live with their mothers. When he is not on the football field, he loves watching movies and listening to music. “Although I can’t really hear the music, I can feel the vibrations from the speakers and when I feel that, I immediately feel the music.”
At the end of his career, which he hopes will include another stint playing professionally abroad, he wants to get involved in coaching. “I want to be a development coach or a goalkeeping coach. Football is my life. I sleep football, I eat football and I dream football. I certainly want to stay in the game. It will be difficult for a person with my disability, but I will use all means to make myself understood.” But Mbaha should still have a few years left playing at the highest level, which he hopes to do in the company of his friend Tjihonge.
“We have such a strong bond because we speak the same language and we are from the same Herero tribe. And because we speak the same language, we are used to staying together. After meetings we will go to a room, and I will explain things like dress code to him and tell him when we are going somewhere,” says Tjihonge, who does not have to think twice about helping the senior goalkeeper. “When you get a chance to help another player play professionally, you help them,” he says matter-of-factly. “His success is my success too. I have to encourage him and also learn from him. We help each other.”