IT was the dream move — Harry Rednapp desperately wanted him, Rio Ferdinand had been impressed by him and West Ham were ready to bring him on board.
But, despite passing the test, Norman Mapeza didn’t become a Hammer.
Instead, he ended up playing for Austrian side, SV Reid and Turkish side Malatyaspor before bringing the curtain down on his career with a swansong appearance at Ajax Cape Town in 2006.
It meant he lost out on a jackpot of about £2 million, had he signed the three-year contract Redknapp was prepared to offer him at West Ham, with an average annual wage of about £451 000, plus additional earnings in bonuses.
Twenty years after coming very close to being a Hammer, the former Warriors skipper is still puzzled how he didn’t end up being only the third Zimbabwean footballer to feature in the English Premiership.
“In the end, they said they couldn’t get a work permit for me, even though they said they had tried their best to get one,” Mapeza told The Herald.
“It was disappointing, of course, because the manager told me they really wanted me to join the team and he told me I had done very well during my time with the team.
“The other players had also embraced me and were happy with my presence there because they felt I could add value to the team.
“However, such things happen, it’s the way football and life is, there are disappointments here and there, but the most important thing is to keep focused and looking ahead.”
Mapeza played three matches against Swindon Town, Plymouth Argyle and Exeter City, impressing in each of them, leaving Winners Worldwide director, John Fashanu, whose agency had taken the player to England, declaring a deal had been secured.
“It’s wonderful, it’s great news for me and the whole of Zimbabwe,” Fashanu said. “Mapeza was just fantastic in all the three matches that he played in the Hammers’ pre-season friendlies, he never put a foot wrong.
“Redknapp said he wanted to buy Mapeza and I will be negotiating the player’s personal contract which will be in the best of his interests.
“I have never been impressed, in the whole of my 20-year soccer career, by a player like I did with Mapeza, he was absolutely sensational.
“The three matches against Swindon Town, Plymputh and Exeter City brought out the best of Mapeza. His brother Kennedy was there to cheer him along, as well as hundreds of Zimbabweans, who were present at the matches.”
Fashanu, however, clarified that Mapeza would require a work permit to play in the English Premiership.
However, the most glowing praise for Mapeza came from Rio Ferdinand, the player he had lined up with in the heart of the Hammers defence, who — in a few months later — would move to Leeds United for a then club record transfer fee of £18 million.
Two years later, Ferdinand became the most expensive defender in world football history when he moved from Leeds United to Manchester United in a £30 million deal.
The former England centre-back said he was certain Mapeza would secure a deal to join the Hammers.
“He is a very good player and all the players here are kind of surprised that he did not get signed,” Ferdinand told The Herald in an exclusive interview from London.
“He is a great guy.
“He played three games for us and impressed everyone who saw him. He is good enough for the Premiership and he should have impressed other teams, or scouts, who saw him play in the pre-season matches and there should be one club that should take him.
“If that happens, there will be a lot of people, among the players here, who will be happy for Norman because we really liked him.”
Ferdinand speculated that the presence of many foreign players at the Hammers could possibly have worked against Mapeza. “Maybe, it’s because there might be a lot of foreign players at the team,” he said. “But, as I said before, I can’t understand why he was not signed and it surprised a lot of people in the team when they leant about it.
“He looks very comfortable on the ball, his composure is excellent and he does not seem, at any time, to be under pressure. He is a very good defender and you could understand why he is the captain of the Zimbabwe national team.
“I think he should still make it in the Premier League.”
Peter Stewart, who was the West Ham press officer back then, said the deal fell through when the British Home Office advised them they would not grant Mapeza a work permit.
“Norman Mapeza is a very good player,” said Stewart. “He impressed everyone during his trials but we cannot sign him because we have to apply for his work permit which our Home Office cannot grant us because we already have five foreign players in the team.”
Some of the players Mapeza would have played with, had that deal materialised, included Italian maverick forward, Paolo Di Canio, Guinea forward Titi Camara and Croatia legend, Davor Sucker.
Despite the frustration, Redknapp did not forget Mapeza and tried to again get the player to join him at Portsmouth, in July 2001, where he had become the director of football.
“Norman Mapeza is a player we have been chasing,” Redknapp told BBC Sport after Pompey announced they had secured his signature.
“I rate Norman very highly and I think he will do a great job here.
“I had him with me at West Ham for pre-season training at the start of last year but he never played for us because we couldn’t get a work permit.
“I don’t expect to have problems with that this time because he’s the captain of Zimbabwe and they have gone up in the world rankings, which will make things far easier for us.
“The fact I brought him to West Ham indicates how highly I rate him. He is also a leader as well and that’s no bad thing.”
However, once again, Mapeza could not get a work permit to play in England.