Bidvest Wits forward Phakamani Mahlambi is well on his way to becoming a future South African great. Yet his elder brother will have a lot, if not everything, to do with it.
Teenage sensation Phakamani Mahlambi has his brother to thank following his career-threatening injury
“If it’s best for Phakamani, it’s best for me.” Mthobisi Mahlambi, the elder brother of Bidvest Wits’ young sensation Phakamani, turns to his brother sitting next to him with a heart-warming smile. The siblings – just one year apart – have always been close, playing soccer together on the streets of small KwaZulu-Natal hometown Louwsberg, yet following Phakamani’s career-damaging injury suffered in February this year, their bond has become even tighter after Mthobisi’s eternal family sacrifice: donating his hamstring to his younger brother to help heal a career-threatening injury.
Nine months out
Mahlambi had been the talk of the town. Promoted from the Wits academy by head coach Gavin Hunt, the youngster burst onto the Premier Soccer League scene last year, impressing with his pace, skill and eye for goal: with four goals and three assists, he had already won the PSL Player of the Month award for November and December, and featured in 14 out of Wits’ 20 league matches, before a fateful Friday night at Bidvest Stadium against University of Pretoria.
“I went for the ball together with a defender, but tried to pull out,” Phakamani recalls. “But it was too late, and he bumped into my knee. I really wanted to carry on, but when I tried standing up, I could feel my leg was not right. “When I went off the field, I thought it was something that would get better by the next game. Yet after tests, they said I would be out for nine months.”
Mahlambi had torn both his medial (MCL) and anterior collateral ligament (ACL), ending his season and Rio Olympics dream. Yet Wits were determined to act immediately, ensuring their prized possession received only the latest and best treatment. After discussions among the Wits medical staff, the club contacted knee specialist Dr Michael Barrow. “[Wits director] Brain Joffe – who I have treated before – phoned me up at 23h00 at night, asking for an opinion on Phakamani’s knee,” Barrow, an executive on the South African Knee Society with 14 years’ experience, says. “I saw Phakamani two days later, before having MRI scans done on his knee.” The traditional means of treating an ACL injury is to remove the patient’s own hamstring tendon and thread it through the knee to replace the torn ligament. That, however, has an impact on the patient’s speed when running – a vital component to Phakamani’s game. “Because one of Phakamani’s main strengths is his speed, taking his own hamstring would have jeopardised him being quite as good as he could have been,” Barrow explains. “So we offered it to the family to do the same operation, but using a family member’s hamstring. “We only use this concept in very specialised situations, where a patient has the potential to be a world-class athlete … and this is a career-limiting injury. And by operating this way, we’ve lessened the chance of any disabilities.” After consulting with the family, Barrow suggested the father’s hamstring to be used, yet with
Mahlambi senior not too thrilled, brother Mthobisi raised his hand. “My parents were afraid to ask me, but I told them, ‘It’s fine, I’ll do it.’ I wasn’t afraid,” Mthobisi says. Further tests revealed the brother as a perfect match for Phakamani, and after discussions with numerous surgeons, particularly in Australia where this type of surgery is more common, Wits gave the go-ahead for the R100 000 operation.
Under the knife
On Tuesday, March 8, two weeks after suffering the injury, the Mahlambi brothers lay in their hospital beds, donned in mandatory patient gowns, as they nervously awaited their fate. “Just before the surgery, I was fine … but when I went down the lift into theatre, that’s when I started shaking,” Mthobisi recalls. “But after the doctor explained everything, and drew arrows on my leg where they would operate, I was cool.” Twenty minutes later, a 26cm tendon was removed from Mthobisi’s hamstring as he was wheeled out of the operating room, still under anaesthetic, past his brother, who was anxiously awaiting his turn. “When I saw him coming out of theatre, it was difficult for me, because I saw him sleeping and I was waiting to go in after him,” Phakamani says. “I could see the bandage on his leg … and I thought he wasn’t going to wake up! Then I thought I wouldn’t wake up either!” Phakamani was then taken in, as Barrow started the operation, first drilling a hole through the knee on both ends, then folding the tendon over four times before threading it through the drilled socket and securing it on both ends of the knee with specialised buttons. A fibre tape was then inserted as a synthetic ligament to replace the MCL to complete the two-hour surgery. “When I woke up, I didn’t know where I was,” Phakamani says of his first memory post-operation. “It felt like nothing had happened. I tried standing up, but then felt my leg was heavy – and then I knew it was serious. I couldn’t even walk.”
The operation was a resounding success, as both Mahlambi brothers came out unscathed following the rare procedure. “What we’ve done is fairly revolutionary in South Africa, having been done very few times previously in the country,” says Dr Barrow, who himself has only conducted this type of operation three times, but with the parent’s tendon. “It’ll take nine months to fully heal, but it has very little effect on the brother’s life. He’ll be able to play soccer, run, and do everything normally, as that tendon is able to grow back. He may be a slightly slower runner, but that’s it.” Having kept close tabs on both brothers on a weekly basis for the first six weeks, Barrow now sees
“MY PARENTS WERE AFRAID TO ASK ME, BUT I TOLD THEM, ‘IT’S FINE, I’LL DO IT.’”
Phakamani once a month while regularly corroborating with the Wits medical staff, and says the young talent is well ahead of schedule. “Currently, he is doing incredibly well,” the doctor says. “Our whole thing has been to try hold him back, as he was so keen to play in the Olympics. We know it takes nine months for the body to fully incorporate the graft, but we won’t allow him to play until that ninemonth period is up. “He’s well ahead of schedule, in comparison to an average person who has the same injury – partly because he’s young, partly because he’s motivated and because he’s been watched closely by his medical team, and also partly because of what we’ve done.” Barrow is anxiously awaiting Phakamani’s return to the pitch, initially scheduled for January next year. “He’s given me a soccer jersey, and I told him, when he plays his first game, I’ll be there watching. And definitely with baited breath when he first starts off!”
Phakamani’s injury came at the worst moment for South Africa’s young star, who had played a pivotal role in guiding the national Under-23 side to the 2016 Rio Olympics. He vividly remembers the nervewrecking yet memorable experience – kicking the winning spot-kick against Senegal in the third place play-off at the African U-23 Championships that sent South Africa to the Olympics for the first time in 16 years. “I was the youngest in that team … and I was supposed to kick the third penalty, but I wasn’t sure, and told Menzi Masuku – who was supposed to take the fifth spot-kick – to take my penalty,” he reveals. “But then it came to the end, and they told me I had to take the last one. And I said, ‘If I miss, don’t cry, as you told me to take this penalty!’ But I scored – it was a great feeling, making history for South Africa!” Brother Mthobisi remembers that moment all too well too. “When he stepped up to take the penalty, everyone turned their back and couldn’t watch the TV,” he recalls. “As soon as Phakamani scored, everyone started celebrating! There were huge crowds, singing different songs as we walked back home … the whole community was celebrating with our parents … we were so proud!” Despite his subsequent surgery ruling him out of the global spectacle in Brazil, Phakamani says he’s not perturbed. “I’m not worried about missing the Olympics – I’m still young, and can still qualify for the next Olympics, so it’s not a problem,” he says. “I’ll make sure South Africa qualifies again for the next tournament.”
Now six months after the surgery, Phakamani is working hard on getting back to his best, training three times a day in both the gym and on the field, and has already joined the Wits first team in certain training drills. “I’m already training with the team – I can do certain exercises, but some I can’t do so often they take me out to protect me,” he says. “I’d say I’m at about 65%. There’s no pain – it’s just the mental barrier to overcome now, as I’m a bit scared to do certain movements as I’ve been out for so long.”
The 19-year-old says he’s had two very experienced South African stars guiding him through the frustrations of being side-lined for so long: one a former Clever Boys teammate, the other an ex-Bafana Bafana captain. “Sibusiso Vilakazi went through a similar injury, so he could understand how I felt,” Phakamani reveals. “So he was helping a lot, telling me what to do. “Lucas Radebe also spoke to me, and told me it’s all about mental strength – I have to deal with it, no-one can do it for me. He said I have to work hard, and have to do more than what I used to do, in order to get back and play.” Watching the new season get underway from the sidelines, Phakamani admits he is jealous of his teammates. “As a player, I’m jealous – it’s something I’m a little afraid to say – as someone is playing in my position … but jealous in a good way,” he clarifies. “I’m happy for my team and my teammates, especially after our opening day win over a big team like Kaizer Chiefs, but it’s not troubling me too much that I’m not there, because I know when I come back I’ll be with my teammates once more and do the same thing they are doing. So there’s no point being jealous of my teammates while they are doing well. But I’m looking forward to getting my place back. “The next step is to get better. And then, to come back stronger than I was before.”
No debt to pay
Mthobisi, who laughs at how often fans confuse him with his brother, insists he is not expecting anything from Phakamani, despite his family sacrifice. “I’m not expecting anything,” he says. “People have told me, ‘What you did for your brother was amazing! He should give you everything you want!’ But he doesn’t owe me anything. I did it with love from my heart, not because I wanted something back. He’s my brother, I support him … I had to do it. We have to stay together as family. “Growing up, he’s always helped me a lot – not football-wise, but in everything else, and has always been there for me. Even as children, if we got home late from playing somewhere, we would get a hiding … but he would go first, and I’d run away – so he took my hidings for me!” the elder Mahlambi reveals, turning to his brother as they both burst into laughter. Phakamani says he is grateful for the support of his family, who he partially assists financially, and will be forever indebted to his brother, who he hopes to truly thank in the coming years. “Right now, all I can say is ‘thank you’. But in the future, we’ll see …”
Mahlambi suffered the damaging injury in action against Tuks
Dr Michael Barrow performed the unique operation
Mahlambi trains up to three times a day as he looks forward to his return
The youngster has strengthened in other areas during his long lay-off