Pelembe, the golden boy of Mozambican football stands as proof of longevity.
By Tuka Letura
In the bustling world of African football, where juvenescence often takes centre stage, and older players are relegated to the role of merely their veteran presence, one man defies the norms, standing as a testament to the timeless beauty of the sport.
Elias Gasper “Domingues” Pelembe, the seasoned Mozambican midfielder, has etched his name in the annals of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) history and African Football, not just as a skilful player but as the oldest outfield participant in the 2024 tournament.
The three-time Premier Soccer League (PSL) Winner with Bidvest Wits (2016/2017), Mamelodi Sundowns (2013/2014) and Supersport United (2009/2009) is unfazed and fully committed to exerting his influence on his side.
The Journey Begins in Maxaquene
Pelembe’s journey in football began on the streets of Maputo, Mozambique, where his raw talent caught the eye of local scouts. His early years were spent honing his skills with Maxaquene, a club in his homeland, where he showed all the signs that would come to define his career.
Domingues made his senior international debut at 19 for The Mambas in 2004, stepping onto the field in the final minute of a 2-0 victory against Malawi in the Council of Southern Africa Football Associations (COSAFA) Cup. This marked the beginning of his international journey, one that would be characterised by both triumphs and challenges.
His contributions in subsequent COSAFA Cups with Mozambique showcased his commitment, but the coveted trophy remained elusive. However, Pelembe’s time with the national team was just taking flight. He would go on to play a pivotal role in securing the qualification for Mozambique’s first AFCON in 2010 — breaking their 12-year qualification drought.
In his inaugural AFCON appearance, despite Mozambique finishing at the bottom of their group with only one point – earned through a hard-fought 2-2 draw against Benin Republic – Pelembe’s commitment remained firm. The competition concluded with Egypt and Nigeria advancing to the next round, while Mozambique faced elimination.
It looked like it had all come to a halt suddenly for Mozambique and Pelembe, but this would not end their hopes or their dreams. He was now captain.
In the first game of the AFCON 2015 final qualifying round, Pelembe missed a penalty in the early stages of the second half as Mozambique drew at home to Zambia. Pelembe would find himself hospitalised from exhaustion and fever after this game.
Finishing third in the group, Mozambique failed to qualify for AFCON that year. They also failed to meet the criteria to qualify as best losers and this pattern continued in the next three editions.
Breakthrough would, however, come in 2023 when Mozambique finished second in their qualification group with 10 points, losing only to table-toppers Senegal, to qualify for the latest edition of the competition. Domingues featured in all six games of qualifying.
On Christmas Eve last year, Chiquinho Conde – the coach of the Mozambique national team – named a 23-man squad for the tournament. Elias “Domingues” Pelembe made the squad. Five weeks after he turned 40, he was set for his second stint at the greatest competition on the continent.
At 40 years and 21 days old, and leading The Mambas out in their opening game of the competition against Egypt was Pelembe, just like he has for over a decade. An appearance that would see him become the oldest outfield player to captain a side at any AFCON, surpassing late South African midfielder John “Shoes” Lesiba Meshoeu whose last appearance as Captain came when he was 38 years and 57 days old. Pelembe would also become only the second oldest overall behind Egypt’s Essam El-Hadary.
At the break, Egypt had the lead, courtesy of a sublime second-minute strike by Mostafa Mohammed, with Pelembe taken off as one of two half-time substitutions. Mozambique found the back of the net twice in the second period, but would be unable to secure their first-ever win against the competition’s team with the most trophies won. A penalty from Mohammed Salah in additional time levelled the score.
Before the game, in the pre-match press conference, Pelembe attributed his longevity to passion, rest, and diet. “It’s the passion that I do have with soccer. Like I do say, it’s in my blood. This passion keeps me going. It also goes with what you do when you are not playing. So, I’ve been trying to rest as much as I can. The diet is also very important; I just don’t eat anything. But it is the passion that keeps me going.”
The next edition of the competition is scheduled for 2025, and it’s yet to be ascertained if Mozambique will be present, neither is there any statement from Pelembe to suggest he is retiring. With qualification yet to kick off, it would come as no surprise if the veteran makes another appearance if they make it to the finals.
Whatever happens, Pelembe’s name is already etched into the books of Africa’s records, and his strides for the national team will be remembered fondly by Mozambicans.
Tuka Letura is an experienced sports writer, with over five years in the craft. He uses data and statistics to provide analysis and commentary. From regional to worldwide competitions, he has covered a wide range of sports-related events and topics. He is devoted to sharing his enthusiasm for sports with his audience and engaging them with interesting anecdotes and viewpoints.
Cover Photo: Getty Images