Fam­ily sac­ri­fice

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.

Kick Off - - Contents - BY FABIO DE DOMINICIS

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.”

Rev­o­lu­tion­ary treat­ment

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


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!”

Olympic dream

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

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