“By the grace of God, he lived his dream by reaching the Premier League. Some dreams, however, come to an end, so it is with sadness that I announce the need to hang up my boots.”
If you are unaware of the news announced just before 10 AM UK time on Monday, you’ll be excused for thinking that this was the statement of a veteran footballer announcing their departure from the game.
Unfortunately, this is not the case.
This is the statement of Brighton & Hove Albion and Zambia midfielder Enock Mwepu, as the 24-year-old was forced to retire following the diagnosis of a hereditary heart condition, which would have put him at high risk of a “potentially fatal cardiac event” if it was to worsen while he continued to play competitive football.
It was detected after Mwepu fell ill as he travelled to Bamako, the capital of Mali, alongside teammate Patson Daka, who also became ill, to join up with the national team for their friendly against the west African nation.
It had been communicated before their arrival that the pair was feeling unwell. Following tests with Wesley Ngongo, the Chipolopolo team doctor, and the medical team, Mwepu was sent to a hospital in Bamako where he would spend the next four days undergoing tests.
He was discharged on Sunday, 20 September after claiming to feel better and was sent back to England to undergo further tests when the heart condition was discovered.
It’s a huge shame to see a promising career come to such an abrupt end, but the midfielder can take great pride in what he has achieved; becoming a popular figure in his homeland, captaining his nation, competing at the highest level, and realising a childhood dream of the stepping on the turf of his boyhood club.
Before his arrival in Europe in July 2017 as a 19-year-old from Kafue Celtic, Mwepu was already gaining international recognition for his performances at the 2017 Under-20 World Cup in South Korea.
A staple in Zambia’s midfield, Beston Chambeshi‘s side topped Group C, having defeated a strong Portugal side 2-1, overturned a two-goal deficit against Iran to win 4-2 before losing 1-0 to Costa Rica in the final game.
Zambia went on to cause further upset by defeating Germany 4-3 after extra time in the round of 16, with Mwepu setting up Fashion Sakala for their second in the 68th minute before putting his side 3-1 up in the 86th minute.
The quarter-final proved to be a hurdle too high for the Chipolopolo after losing 3-2 to Italy after extra time – but Mwepu’s two goals and two assists in the tournament saw his stock rise before he joined perennial Austrian champions Red Bull Salzburg.
Adventures in Austria
The then 19-year-old started with Die Roten Bullen’s feeder club FC Liefering in the Erste Liga, the second tier in Austria, playing alongside the likes of compatriot Daka, Dominik Szoboszlai and Romano Schmid, and it was clear from early on that he was a cut above the rest.
Mwepu was a standout player for Janusz Góra‘s side and made playing against senior opposition look effortless as his strong frame and ball retention made it difficult for defenders to contend with him. The way he operated with the ball was akin to Yaya Touré.
It wasn’t long before Salzburg head coach Marco Rose started taking notice and awarded him his first team debut as a substitute for veteran Christoph Leitgeb in the ÖFB Cup against ASK/BC Bruck/Leitha. Mwepu went on to have an impact by setting up Hannes Wolf in extra time to put them 2-1 ahead in an eventual 3-1 win.
Mwepu continued his development with Liefering for most of the campaign before beginning to break into the Salzburg squad, earning his first league start against Admira Wacker in April 2018.
The Zambian put in a brilliant performance as he assisted Fredrik Gulbrandsen in the third minute before scoring his first goal for the club with a sensational over-the-shoulder volley from Munas Dabbur‘s deep cross.
His influence in the side continued to grow, and in Rose’s final season in charge, before he moved to Borussia Dortmund, Mwepu made 28 appearances in all competitions, including five in the Europa League, with the Austrian side reaching the quarter-finals of the competition as Salzburg achieved the league and cup double.
It was under the now-Leeds United head coach Jesse March that he became the heartbeat of a team that included the likes of Szoboszlai, Hwang Hee-chan, Takumi Minamino and Erling Haaland, acting as the assuring presence in the pivot of the Marsch’s relentless high-pressing setup.
In his two seasons under the American, he went on to accumulate 80 appearances from a variety of positions, scored 15 goals and registered 14 assists en route to back-to-back league and cup triumphs, as well as playing against the likes of Atlético Madrid, Bayern Munich and Napoli in the Champions League.
Achieving his dream
However, one thing will stand above the rest for Mwepu: the opportunity to grace the pitch of Anfield, the home of his boyhood club.
In October 2019, Salzburg travelled to England to face the reigning European champions in game week 2 of Group E in what proved to be an unforgettable encounter.
Liverpool were quick to assert their dominance and went 3-0 ahead by the 36th minute. Marsch’s side pulled one back three minutes later as Mwepu passed the ball to Hwang on the edge of the area, and the South Korean made his way into the box, sitting Virgil van Dijk down before firing a shot past Adrián.
By the 60th minute, Salzburg had produced an incredible comeback. Minamino reduced the deficit to one soon after the break before the Mwepu’s reverse pass put the Japan international into a strong position to set up Haaland for a tap-in.
Wild scenes ensued as the Norwegian was swamped by his teammates in front of the travelling support as Marsch replicated José Mourinho’s iconic touchline sprint to join in with the celebrations.
The euphoria didn’t last long as Mohamed Salah fired his second of the night past Cican Stanković nine minutes later – but it was a performance everyone involved with the club could take pride in – particularly Mwepu.
The then 21-year-old was a standout performer on the night, and as footage of a Zambian supporters club chanting “Mwepu, Mwepu, Mwepu” on repeat circulated on Twitter following the match, it highlighted the influence he was already having in his homeland and how valued he’d become.
Making a name in England
In the summer of 2021 Mwepu’s time to depart the club and pursue his dream of playing in the Premier League had come. Brighton forked out a reported club-record fee of £18 million for the man that had become a serial winner during his four years in Austria.
He was a bit-part player under Graham Potter, as injuries made it difficult for him to gain momentum in the side, but he will no doubt look back on his only full season in England with great fondness.
Poetically, his first goal in the league came at his dream stadium, against his dream club, and was later named Brighton’s Goal of the Season. In a 2-2 draw with Liverpool in October 2021, Solly March set up Mwepu to produce a first-time strike from outside the area that looped over Alisson and into the net just before half-time.
Whether it was intentional or not, only he will know.
The 24-year-old quickly endeared himself to the Brighton support, and his Man of the Match performance in the Seagulls’ 2-1 against Arsenal at the Emirates will be fondly remembered, as he assisted Leandro Trossard in the first half before his half-volley from the edge of the area put a huge dent in the Gunners’ Champions League hopes.
A goal that would prove to be the last of his career.
The boy from the small town of Chambishi, just west of the DR Congo-Zambia border, can reflect on his short-lived career with great pride.
From helping his nation to their first-ever Under-20 Africa Cup of Nations triumph in 2017 and reaching the Under-20 World Cup quarter-finals in the same year to scoring on his senior national team debut against Algeria, earning 22 caps, and captaining his nation on four occasions, he achieved more than most will in their careers.
His journey from Lusaka to the Premier League via the Europa League and Champions League will no doubt have created a pathway for Zambians to not only dream of emulating him but make it a reality.