It was raw, blood and thun­der

Kick Off - - FEATURE -

After two years at Bid­vest Wits where he won the Absa Premier­ship and MTN8 ti­tle, Bon­gani Khu­malo made a re­turn to Su­per­Sport United for a third spell at the cap­i­tal club. And de­spite be­ing 31, the de­fender in­sists he still has a lot to of­fer. In this heart-to-heart in­ter­view with Zola Doda, he opens up about his time in Europe, his re­turn to the PSL and the chal­lenge of try­ing to re-ad­just to the lo­cal game.

KICK OFF: Bongs, thanks a lot for tak­ing the time to talk to us. First things first, what made you de­cide to re­turn to Su­per­Sport United? Bon­gani Khu­malo: The main rea­son is that this time around, things are dif­fer­ent. There is a new coach [Kaitano Tembo] in charge who I’ve known since I was a kid. It means a lot when the coach speaks to you di­rectly when he wants you – you can talk to a CEO or club owner, but it means more when it’s the coach that speaks to you di­rectly. That is when you know that it is the right place for you. You ob­vi­ously have a good re­la­tion­ship with coach Tembo … Yes, I do. When I first joined Su­per­Sport, I was about 20 years old and Kaitano was in the club’s set-up, coach­ing the young­sters. I re­mem­ber once we were play­ing a match away to Moroka Swal­lows and we were lead­ing 2-0 when the game was stopped be­cause of a light­ing prob­lem. When we went back onto the pitch, I don’t think I was switched on and I made a mis­take which al­lowed Swal­lows to score. Kaitano was the only guy that sent me a text after that game, en­cour­ag­ing me to move on be­cause those things hap­pen. I think that taught me ev­ery­thing I wanted to know about him as a coach. Even be­fore I joined Su­per­Sport I heard many great things about him as a se­nior coach. What did he say when he called you to join him at Su­per­Sport? The con­ver­sa­tion was straight­for­ward. He told me what he was look­ing to do, what he de­mands and what I can con­trib­ute to what he is try­ing to achieve. For me that means a lot, and small faith from the word go is im­por­tant. I’m very pleased with what we have done so far; we go one game at a time and achieve the best we can. You seem to have a very spe­cial con­nec­tion with Su­per­Sport United … I was a ball boy for this team when I was 10 years old, dur­ing the time

when the team used to play some of their games at Ar­ca­dia Shep­herds [Cale­do­nia Sta­dium]. It’s funny when I look back – I used to go into their dress­ing room and ask for shin pads from the late Thomas Madi­gage, and John Moeti was still there too. Be­ing with Ar­ca­dia Shep­herds my­self, I was al­ways in and around the club and I’ve al­ways been close to the team. When I was older, I then signed for them. Joe [Boshielo] the kit­man has been here for ages – he spot­ted me when I was a 15-year-old and he is the one who kept telling me to work hard and stay strong. And after com­ing back to the team, I’m work­ing with him again. It’s a great en­vi­ron­ment. What is dif­fer­ent this time around, com­pared to your first two spells with Mat­sat­santsa? The first spell was tremen­dously suc­cess­ful be­cause we won the league in my first sea­son. Be­fore that sea­son started, I told my­self I’d be happy play­ing just ten games, but I ended up play­ing the ma­jor­ity of our games, win­ning the league and be­ing named Young Player of the Year. It was re­ally a great start, as I then went on to win the league three times in a row. I then played at the 2010 World Cup, went to Europe and came back. Many peo­ple un­der­es­ti­mate the chal­lenges play­ers face when com­ing back from Europe be­cause the Euro­pean game has such a dif­fer­ent men­tal­ity. Is it? Yes, it’s to­tally dif­fer­ent – it’s miles apart. I went to Eng­land, one of the most com­pet­i­tive leagues in the world, and it was tough. Be­fore my bad knee in­jury, I felt I was re­ally adapt­ing well to the English men­tal­ity and the way of play­ing. As a de­fender your time to set­tle in is dif­fer­ent to other out­field play­ers be­cause if you are not ready, you will make mis­takes that will cost the team. It takes time to ad­just to the men­tal­ity and the phys­i­cal­ity of the game. You’ve seen many play­ers signed for mil­lions and mil­lions of Pounds in Eng­land, yet they fail to ad­just be­cause it’s a dif­fer­ent men­tal­ity of play­ing foot­ball. Peo­ple think when you come back to South Africa after spend­ing time in Europe, you can just slot in, but no, that is not the case. The Euro­pean game is so dif­fer­ent. I wish more peo­ple would go and be part of those set-ups and see how things are run, how you train and how games are played. It’s a spe­cial place to play foot­ball. Com­ing back was a mat­ter of re-ad­just­ing, but un­for­tu­nately at the time when Gor­don [Ige­sund] was in charge [at Su­per­Sport United], we did not have the great­est re­la­tion­ship. Why do you say that? It’s some­thing I don’t want to talk about. But clearly that didn’t work out well, and I ended up leav­ing. I then joined Gavin Hunt at Bid­vest Wits, a coach who knew what I was about. He gave me time to set­tle and once I set­tled, I helped the team win the league. I’ve been back now for a few years now and it’s safe to say I have set­tled in, not only with re­gards to foot­ball, but life in gen­eral. An­other ma­jor dif­fer­ence is the life­style. When I was in Greece, I used to call my team­mates to go out for din­ner at 7pm, and they would be like: ‘Do you want to go out for lunch? 7pm is way too early.’ Din­ner there is at 10pm – it was the strangest thing ever. I’ve then called friends here at 21h30 and asked them to go out for din­ner, and they’ve asked ‘Why now?’ which shows the dif­fer­ence in men­tal­ity. That is just Greece – Eng­land is an­other dif­fer­ent story all to­gether. On the play­ing side, what have you found to be the big­gest chal­lenge upon re­turn­ing to the PSL? It’s the men­tal­ity, the way foot­ball is played. When I first started play­ing for the na­tional team with Steven Pien­aar, he used to high­light the dif­fer­ence. There are cer­tain times when you are sup­posed to play one-touch foot­ball and move the ball quickly, but be­cause some play­ers take two or three touches on the ball, by the time they pass it your space is al­ready closed. If you watch Euro­pean foot­ball, the ball moves quickly be­tween spa­ces. In essence, the ba­sic dif­fer­ence is the men­tal­ity of the game. When you glance over your ca­reer so far, are you happy with what you have achieved? Yes, of course. To put it in sim­ple terms, when I was young I used to beg my mother to get me David Beck­ham boots, and she worked hard to get them for me. At the age of 23, I was sit­ting in a Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur dress­ing room and David Beck­ham was sit­ting next to me. How was that not liv­ing the dream? It’s the fun­ni­est thing to hear peo­ple

say­ing I made the move be­cause of money. When you get of­fered a job pro­mo­tion, do you say no? Mov­ing to Eng­land to a Premier­ship club … I mean, there is no greater pro­mo­tion in foot­ball than that. I’m not even talk­ing about money, just the essence of the game and play­ing at that high­est level with the best play­ers. It doesn’t get bet­ter than that. I watched David Beck­ham train as if he was still in poverty – he worked so hard. When you see peo­ple who have achieved so much graft­ing ev­ery day like that, it’s un­be­liev­able. I’m so glad and so happy and thank God ev­ery day. I’ve lived my dream and that is all I wanted to do. Some play­ers want to be a lo­cal star, or a big fish in a small pond … if you are com­fort­able, you are happy, and that’s per­fect. But I’ve al­ways been cu­ri­ous about Europe and play­ing at the high­est level. When I was in camps with Bafana Bafana, I loved shar­ing a room with Steven Pien­aar, Benni Mc­Carthy or Aaron Mokoena, and just ask­ing them about Europe, and their ex­pe­ri­ences there. I would leave camp in­spired, want­ing to do well. I’m blessed that I man­aged to live that dream. I had a bad in­jury where peo­ple thought my ca­reer was over, but here I am play­ing again and I’m happy. I’ve changed my fam­ily’s life, and that’s why we are play­ing this game. What were some of the big­gest chal­lenges you faced in Europe? Mov­ing around a lot, adapt­ing to new teams and new ways of play­ing were just some of the things I found dif­fi­cult. Read­ing and Don­caster had dif­fer­ent styles of play­ing so there were var­i­ous chal­lenges there, but go­ing to all these places was all about the ex­pe­ri­ence. As much as you learn a lot from train­ing with the best play­ers, there is noth­ing like com­pet­i­tive foot­ball. And the Cham­pi­onship is a dif­fer­ent league – it’s a raw, blood and thun­der type of league, and I thor­oughly en­joyed it. Next thing I knew I came to South Africa to play against Brazil, got in­jured and I was ly­ing in bed fight­ing for my ca­reer. But that is life; I have no re­grets, I’ve al­ways pushed my­self and what hap­pened was meant to hap­pen. It is what it is, and I pre­fer to look for­ward – I’ve been given an­other great chance by Su­per­Sport, and they’ve shown in­cred­i­ble faith in me again. My job is to re­pay them in the best way pos­si­ble. What is the high­light of your ca­reer in Europe? And your low­light? The high­light was join­ing Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur. I re­mem­ber the first time I went to watch an English Premier­ship match … most peo­ple only dream of do­ing that as fans. I went there to watch it not as a fan, but as part of the squad – I was ba­si­cally watch­ing my team­mates and that was a spe­cial mo­ment. It was a bizarre feel­ing. The low­light was the first year when I went through so many in­juries. It was dif­fer­ent, it was freez­ing, there was snow – we don’t see snow in this coun­try. The first year was tough, but after that I un­der­stood the men­tal­ity and what was ex­pected of me. For me, Eng­land is the best place for foot­ball. How would you de­scribe your time at pre­vi­ous club Wits? Ob­vi­ously I was not a reg­u­lar fix­ture, but I played a cou­ple of games. We were in the run­ning for the league ti­tle for a num­ber of years and I’m happy I con­trib­uted to that. When we won the league, ev­ery player con­trib­uted and I’m just happy to have been one of them. What lies ahead for you? And is coach­ing a fu­ture pos­si­bil­ity for you? Mhhh, at this point I’m doubt­ful about that, but I will say this though: when I was a lot younger, that was a firm “no”. But the older I get, the more open I am to that idea. But right now, I can put that out as an am­bi­tion. I’m al­ways will­ing to learn be­cause I find this game fas­ci­nat­ing.

BEST GOAL “The goal I scored against France at the 2010 World Cup was spe­cial. That is the ul­ti­mate and it doesn’t get any bet­ter than that. In 1998 we played France and I watched that game sit­ting on my dad’s lap … lit­tle did I know that 12 years later, I would be play­ing against them. Sadly, my dad passed away in 2003.”

BEST TEAM­MATE “At Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur, I would say all of them. There was Jer­main De­foe (right) – if there were ever small-sided games, you al­ways prayed he would be in your team be­cause that man was lethal. We had the best play­ers. Luka Mo­dric (far right) was one of the best too – I mean, what more do you want?”

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