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Exclusive: The inside story of Enock Mwepu: From Chambishi to the Champions League

Enock Mwepu

Enock Mwepu’s steady rise has often gone under the radar. But the 22 year old midfielder is developing into one of the most exciting midfielders in Europe.

In 2017, Lee Kawanu sat down with his two proteges.

The Kafue Celtic club director had guided their careers with extreme attention to detail up to that point.

Through every set-back in Patson Daka and Enock Mwepu’s fledgling career, Lee Kawanu was always there to inspire them to keep going.

This time the mood was more celebratory. The two were approaching the end of their time with Lee. They had already moved onto pastures new in Salzburg having achieved success on their home soil winning the coveted U20 African Cup of Nations. And with an impressive quarter final finish in the subsequent World Cup in Korea behind them, the future was looking bright.

Enock and Patson were quickly becoming the darlings of a nation bereft of stars who had conquered the European scene.

In that environment Lee Kawanu looked at his two proteges with pride. He sat them down and prophesised the path they would have to follow thereon.

‘I told Enock that he can become the next Yaya Toure. Of course he is going to be his own Enock but in terms of achievement I feel that he can get to the levels of Yaya Toure. I told Patson the same, he can be the next Samuel Eto’o.’

Five years later, Lee Kawanu is sticking to his guns.

‘For me that’s what they should aim for as a minimum.’

Following First Time Finish’s exclusive interview with Lee Kawanu to reveal the inside story behind Patson Daka’s journey to the top. We sat down with the Kafue Celtic director to discuss Enock Mwepu.

Humble Beginnings

In 2013, Airtel Rising Stars sought to discover Zambia’s best youth prospects. The aim was to assemble the nation’s strongest players and to play in international tournaments across the world.

For a boy like Enock Mwepu, who grew up in the small mining town of Chambishi, Airtel gave him an opportunity to showcase his talent.

Lee Kawanu first spotted Enock playing in his hometown during a trip to Zambia’s Copperbelt province as part of his scouting mission for Airtel.

He remembers the moment well.

‘I wasn’t there when they started the trial, but a coach told to watch these two boys. They were Enock and his friend, Changwe.

I watched them for a few minutes and I just thought they were a different class than the other boys. The way they were shooting and running past the players with the ball, it was very impressive.’

One particular trait stood out to Lee.

‘When I first saw him he seemed a bit slow, but then I realised he moved the ball so quick. I think when you really look at him you realise he is actually quiet fast. He could eliminate defenders with ease thanks to his movement. His technique was excellent.’

Learning Curve

Lee Kawanu initially allowed Enock to develop in his hometown academy in Chambishi. However as time passed, it became clear that Mwepu needed a new challenge.

‘The U17 coach complained that he’d call players from smaller academies into the team and they would train for a month. During that month they’d pick up their pace. But once they went back to their academies and they were called back a month later their performance levels dipped.’

Something needed to change.

‘The coach asked me to bring some of these boys to Kafue Celtic, Enock was one of them. I spoke to his parents and we agreed a deal. And that’s how he joined us.’

Enock Mwepu would only stay with Kawanu’s Kafue Celtics for a year and a half. Like Patson Daka, Enock was snapped up by Zambian Super League side Power Dynamos. And just like Patson, the move would be an important learning curve for Enock.

‘Unfortunately he only played a Charity Shield game for 60 minutes. The fans were on him, he didn’t have a great game and unfortunately he never played again,’ Lee remembers.

‘I remember meeting with him, and he complained about the situation, and I told him this impact was minor. We had tournaments coming up and I told him he would do well there and everything would fall into place.’

Kawanu would be proven right. He helped Mwepu move on loan to fellow Super League outfit NAPSA Stars where the youngster excelled with some splendid performances.

It would not be long until Mwepu would attract the attention from clubs around the world helping to put the disappointment of his spell at Power Dynamos well and truly behind him.

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A man on a mission

Between 2013 and 2015 to prepare for the African Cup of Nations Lee Kawanu travelled with the U17 Zambia national team to play in tournaments around the world.

‘We played Italy, Brazil and all these kinds of games. The boys were standing out in every game.’

The experience would be vital in helping Enock and his teammates qualify for the tournament with ease.

In Zambia’s final U17 qualifier against Uganda, Lee Kawanu remembers a poignant moment. He sat down with Enock and Patson and made them an important promise.

‘I told them I will do whatever it takes to get them to Europe by the time they will turn 18. I said; if you follow the advice of the coaches and everyone around you, I guarantee you will get there.’

Lee Kawanu was determined to make his promise come true.

‘After the Cosafa tournament,there was interest in Enock from South Africa.’

Lee Kawanu allowed Enock to go on a trial and the young man impressed.

‘They gave us an offer but I refused, because I was holding out for Europe.’

Like with the U17 tournament, Kawanu took the U20 national team to Spain before the U20 African Cup of Nations to prepare for the finals once more. The team played clubs like Barcelona and Basel in friendly matches and Enock caught the eyes of the coaches there too.

Celta Vigo were particularly interested.

‘I turned down their offer as well, because I wanted Enock to be managed by Fred (Kanoute) like Patson. Then there was interest from Russia. An agent told me we could get £1 million for him, but I told him no. I knew Russia was not the right place for him.

‘Some Sheikh called me from Qatar after the Africa Cup asking about Enock, they told me they would pay anything for him but I wasn’t interested in the money.’

Lee was convinced Red Bull Salzburg or some other team with European prestige would take a punt on Enock.

The European Adventure

Initially the Red Bull Salzburg scouting staff came to Kafue with a single purpose. Directed by Frederic Kanoute, they were in the small industrial town to assess Kafue Celtic’s star man, Patson Daka.

However, as the exhibition match exploded into action, it wasn’t just Daka who caught their eyes.

‘While Patson was being watched, Enock was really standing out. He was very imposing, and it was hard for the scouts to ignore,’ Lee remembers.

In the space of 90 minutes, Red Bull had found not one but two rough diamonds within the confines of the Zambian academy.

‘Everyone’s eyes are always on Patson, but Enock is also sticking out every time,’ Lee Kawanu says fondly.

Salzburg took Patson first in the winter. They’d wait until the African Cup of Nations to assess Enock. His performances were hard to ignore in the tournament.

‘Fred was around for the Africa Cup, he was impressed by him. He took him for a talk one on one, and Fred came back really pleased. He told me he really liked him.’

Even though the Salzburg scouts were impressed by Enock there was also some initial doubts.

‘Red Bull felt he didn’t fit the profile for the club, because they preferred quick players with pace but eventually the scouting department who did the analysis realised he was not that slow.’

‘After the Africa Cup it was hard for them to ignore him.’

‘When they called me to say they wanted to sign him, they asked me if I was willing to let him go, and before they could even finish their sentence I was ready to sign whatever they wanted to sign.’

A poignant loss

Patson Daka and Enock Mwepu have become the darlings of both Zambia and Red Bull, however if things had turned out differently, Enock could have been accompanied by another childhood friend from Chambishi.

When Lee Kawanu first spotted Enock he did not just discover Enock, but he had picked another played from the small mining town to join the national team in Changwe Kalale.

Like Patson and Enock, Changwe became a core part of the Zambian national team’s rise, and an important figure throughout the U17’s tour across the globe.

‘He was a bit more advanced than Enock, Changwe got a call-up to the senior team at just 16 years old, around the same time as Patson was making his debut.’

Changwe’s future was looking bright.

Until tragedy would strike.

‘He got a call to travel from the Copperbelt to Lusaka. He jumped on the first bus, a truck lost control, the driver of the bus tried to avoid it and there was an accident. Unfortunately the boy got a spinal injury in a very bad spot.’

Even after making a promising recovery, Changwe’s hopes of returning to the pitch was unlikely. He would be confined to a wheelchair but he’d still travel to watch many of Patson and Enock’s games for the national team.

‘It was a blow to the boys, especially Patson and Enock, because they were the three musketeers who held the team together.’

‘All the players in the team were playing for him, they had Changwe in the back of their minds.’

‘Sadly in the end Changwe succumbed to pneumonia.’

Changwe’s loss was a poignant reminder of the fragility of life. Just how quickly everything can be snatched away.

‘It was an inspiration especially for Enock, they grew up together and they were in the same academy so they were quiet close.’

A year after Changwe passed away, Enock and Patson organised a charity tournament in memory of their friend back in Chambishi and his memory lives on.

A bright future

Since arriving in Salzburg, Enock Mwepu has shattered perceptions that he is not the ‘Red Bull type’ of player.

After making steady progress in Liefering and scoring on his first start in the Austrian Bundesliga, Mwepu has become the linchpin of the side.

He’s caught the eye in footballing cathedrals like Liverpool’s Anfield, Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena, Napoli’s Stadio San Paolo and Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano.

In the Champions League group stages this season no player applied more pressures to the opposition than Enock Mwepu (165). Likewise no player made more successful pressures than Salzburg’s Zambian midfielder (54) via FBref.

With the game’s increasing focus on intensity and high-pressing players, Enock Mwepu has emerged at the perfect time.

He is the perfect all round ‘modern’ midfielder. He can maraud forward with bursting runs and he reads the game with precision.

Endowed with the sobriquet ‘the computer’ from a young age due to his calculated passing and ability to read the game, Mwepu’s unique skillset has the potential to take him right to pinnacle of the game.

‘He always knows where he is taking the ball before it gets to him. He’s constantly ‘computing’ his position and the situation he is in,’ Lee Kawanu says.

A trait like that is rare and it has unsurprisingly alerted some of the top clubs in the world.

‘There’s always Premier League teams talking to Fred (Kanoute) about him,’ Lee tells me.

It will only be a matter of time until Mwepu’s makes the leap to a higher level and Lee Kawanu believes he will succeed wherever he goes.

‘I think both him and Patson can get into the big four leagues, make an impact there and become legends at whatever club they will join.’

Whether Enock can achieve the heights of Yaya Toure only time will tell, but he has shown he has the tools to fulfil Lee Kawanu’s prophecy. Kawanu hopes, Enock, alongside Patson, can lead Zambia to their first ever World Cup.

The impressive list of prior Salzburg graduates like Sadio Mane, Naby Keita and Erling Haaland is certainly a promising omen.

Guided by his agent, former African Player of the Year, Freddie Kanoute, Mwepu will have all the support to fulfil his maximum potential and judging by his Champions League performances the sky is the limit for the Zambian midfielder.

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