Sam’s slippery slope to the top
The two Man-of-the-Match awards picked up by Bloemfontein Celtic left-back Bongani Sam in two consecutive matches against Soweto duo Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs might’ve seemed like an easy feat, but the player’s journey to the top-flight was far fr
“People who think I got to where I am in an easy way don’t understand the difficulties I had to go through. I sacrificed a lot in my life … this was not an easy journey. I come from an area riddled with crime. A lot of guys I grew up with do crime and drink alcohol, but football took me out of that environment. When my friends were out drinking or doing crime, I’d be at the field playing football. Sometimes when I came back from training, I would hear stories about the police coming to look for my friends who were out somewhere getting drunk. If something happened in the community, like things getting stolen from people’s houses, no one suspected me because they knew there was no way I would do something like that. Football kept me out of those things and that is why I’m here today and able to tell my story.” Those are the chilling and heartfelt words of Bloemfontein Celtic defender Bongani Sam as he opens up to KICK OFF about the hardships on his journey to the top tier of South African football. Born on 30 July 1997 in kwaZakhele, Port Elizabeth, Sam was raised by his grandmother before relocating to Motherwell at the age of 12 after she passed away. The youngster started his career with local amateur side United FC before joining Lion City, where his star began its impressive rise. When an opportunity to attend the Nedbank Ke Yona trials, the left-back took it with both hands and never looked back. “At the time of the Nedbank Ke Yona trials in 2016, I had already experienced playing in the ABC Motsepe League with Lion City,” he starts. “A couple of my friends who had been to the Ke Yona trials before advised me to arrive there early because those trials are always full. I took that advice and when I got there at 4am, it was already packed with players. There were 3000 players ahead of me in the queue – I’d never seen anything like that in my life! At that time of the morning, I was definitely expecting to be one of the first in line, but I was wrong. Fortunately, I had a lot of friends standing in front and I managed to jump the queue. I stood in the queue for four hours and we only started trials at 8am. By the time we started I was already tired, but I didn’t want to think about it. I wanted that opportunity to have the trial and I knew I had to make use of it. We trialled, and were told afterwards that those who made it must expect an SMS. I received one which instructed us to attend a boot camp. We were working hard and it was tough, but fortunately I made the team. Out of those
"WHEN MY FRIENDS WERE OUT DRINKING OR DOING CRIME, I'D BE AT THE FIELD PLAYING FOOTBALL."
3000 players, 760 were selected, with that number eventually cut down to three, and I was one of them. It was myself, Makhosandile Plaatjie and Luxolo Mdoli.”
Ke Yona experience
Former Kaizer Chiefs and Durban Bush Bucks star Mike Mangena was one of the Ke Yona selectors and says picking Sam was not a difficult decision. “Besides the talent, we have to look at many things when selecting these players because as an amateur, your mindset is not as fine-tuned as a professional player,” Mangena explains. “So you have to start teaching the player to think differently. Sam has what it takes and he proved that to us. He has pace and always puts himself in good positions to score goals. Off the ball, he is not the type of a player who disappears – his reading of the game and decision-making is great. He has won two Man-of-the-Match awards against Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. Look at that unbelievable goal he scored recently against Orlando Pirates – what a goal. He is confident to execute those moves, while a lot of players will never even make an attempt in those positions. He is following in Aubrey Modiba’s footsteps. He is proof that there is talent in South Africa.” After Sam was selected as one of the 18 nationwide Ke Yona players, the defender was given an opportunity to showcase his talent on the national stage against 2017 Nedbank Cup champions SuperSport United at Makhulong Stadium. Despite the close 2-1 defeat, it was not his performance on the pitch which changed his fortunes, but the lucky draw which took place after the match. “After we played against SuperSport, each Ke Yona player had to choose a team to join for trials, and fortunately for me I chose Bloemfontein Celtic. I grew up supporting Kaizer Chiefs, but I knew that choosing Celtic would work in my favour because I had a better chance of succeeding there. I went there and trialled for a few days, after which I was given a development contract by thencoach Veselin Jelusic before I was loaned to Highlands Park in the National First Division.” Although seemingly a step down, the loan move proved pivotal for the young left-back. “I was told that Highlands Park was requesting me to join them on loan,” he says. “I was happy about that because I worked with Owen da Gama in the Ke Yona team. I was joining a team coached by someone I knew and it was nice because I was not going to get a chance at Celtic. I played there until we won the league.” Highlands Park’s successful First Division campaign saw the team losing a mere three matches and conceding just 13 goals in 30 league matches, with Sam featuring in eight of those encounters, helping his team to six wins and two draws. It came as no surprise then when coach da Gama threw his toys out the cot when he was informed that his reliable defender had to return to his parent club ahead of the 2018/19 campaign. For Sam, his time with the Lions of the North proved a vital experience which prepared him well for his maiden season in South Africa’s top-flight. “It was tough in the NFD – it was never going to be easy there,” he admits. “All the guys were hard at work and it was clear that we could win promotion. What I learned from playing in the NFD is that when you get your chances, you must use them as there’s very little space given to you. The fields are also small, unlike in the PSL, so when you get the ball, there are already four players coming to close you down. Your decision-making needs to be quick and that’s why it’s a lot easier for NFD players coming to the PSL as they are used to the compactness. “In the end Highlands wanted to keep me, but Celtic told me about their offer and the reasons why they rejected it, and I was happy to return to Celtic.”
With Jelusic gone and Komphela appointed as the new coach, Sam returned to a very different Bloemfontein Celtic at the start of the current campaign. The 21-year-old made his debut in the first match of the season, coming on as a second-half substitute against Chippa United. Phunya Sele Sele beat the Chilli Boys 2-0 and 18 minutes Sam played were enough for to award his young left-back with place in the starting line-up for the next against Golden Arrows. Against Abafana Bes’thende, Komphela’s kept another clean sheet on their way a 2-0 victory, winning their second match n succession. The following match against Pirates proved to be the first real test the season, but Sam was on hand to net winner with an acrobatic volley inside box, earning himself the well-deserved of-the-Match accolade. After trailing Kaizer Chiefs 2-0 in their next Celtic’s first defeat of the season
"HE IS PROOF THAT THERE IS ATALENT IN SOUTH AFRICA."