It was raw, blood and thunder
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?”