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


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.”

Celtic re­turn

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


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