The burly striker speaks of his resurgence in the National First Division, before declaring his ambition to claim the PSL’s Golden Boot for the third time.
Whenever the rare opportunity presents itself to chat face to face with PSL record holder Collins Mbesuma, the Zambian forward is never shy to talk his mind. The burly goal machine is currently attached to National First Division rookies Maccabi FC, yet despite last playing in the PSL in May 2017, he doesn’t mince his words in declaring that he will return to top-flight football and be top scorer yet again.
The magical number 35 … the seemingly impossible tally of goals scored by Collins Mbesuma in all competitions for Kaizer Chiefs across the 2004/05 campaign, which remains a record for the most goals scored in a single season still today. That unforgettable campaign played a large part in helping the well-built marksman become one of only five players to ever reach the 100 goals mark in the PSL, despite having spent three years of his career in Europe. When he joined National First Division side Maccabi FC in March, Mbesuma had been on the sidelines for seven months after being forced out by a knee injury picked up while on the books of Highlands Park through their disastrous first spell in the PSL. At that time, Maccabi were a mere third-tier club playing in the ABC Motsepe League Gauteng stream, but were on course for the title and possible promotion. Considering their status, the money the talismanic striker was offered to join Maccabi wasn’t the best, yet he didn’t waste much time in flexing his muscles as his goals helped the lowly club win promotion to the NFD, sending out a timely reminder of his goal scoring prowess. With his fitness improving after dusting off the effects of his long injury lay-off, Mbesuma decided to stay on with the Johannesburg-based club. And it is no surprise that he has led from the front this season, with his five goals so far doing the talking for the new kids on the block, who also have experienced campaigners Lebohang Mokoena and Thapelo Tshilo on their books. Despite having never played in the lower divisions through all of his previous ten seasons in South Africa, Mbesuma says he has no qualms about featuring in the First Division. “I was born as a soccer player, so I can fit into any environment as long as there is football,” he says while taking off his boots after a tough training session overseen by head coach Mokete Tsotetsi. “As long as I am kicking a football, I can play anywhere. That’s me. Where I play doesn’t matter, as long as I am enjoying my football and am able to help the team move forward. I signed for this team when it was in the ABC Motsepe League and then went with them to the play-offs where I did what I had to do, which was to help the team gain promotion to the NFD. My aim is now to get us into the PSL.”
With experience in both the ABC Motsepe League and First Division after a decade in the PSL, Mbesuma is well-informed to discuss the differences in the football played across South Africa’s top three divisions. “It has not been easy football-wise, but I’m happy I’m with a team that is run professionally,” he says. “I have had to adapt to the playing style because here I have to work extra hard. The football in this league is very physical and involves a lot of running, unlike in the PSL where it is more about using your brains. Luckily here we have coaches who want to implement the same kind of thinking in the PSL, so we are moving well in that direction, plus we are getting to better understand each other.” As the PSL’s record-holder, many were surprised at the striker’s decision to join a third-tier outfit, with Mbesuma himself revealing the thought process behind his choice. “After a long injury I had to start somewhere,” he says. “You must understand that I went almost eight months without even kicking a ball, so I couldn’t start up there [in the PSL]. I needed to bring back my fitness, so that is why I had to come and start here. When I underwent the knee surgery I was still at Highlands Park and it was in the middle of the season [in December 2016], but then because of the relegation fight the club was faced
"THIS WAS THE WORST INJURY I EVER HAD BECAUSE I COULDN'T EVEN DO ANYTHING."
with, I came back before I had fully recovered. This was the worst injury I have ever had because I couldn’t even do anything. I just had to sit, but thank God I was able to come back and start running and then start playing again. God is good – I wasn’t even supposed to play again [after the injury]. Do you know that even though I was playing, I couldn’t even kick the ball? Imagine! The trouble is that when you tell the team you are injured, some people think you are not serious. “When I initially came here to keep fit, I thought it was an amateur team, but then when I saw the professionalism, I could tell this was a team going somewhere. I joined this team because I could relate to the ambition they were showing. This is a challenge I needed because some people thought Mbesuma was gone, but I’m back now. I will never give up in my life. My fitness level at the moment is top-notch and at 100%.”
While his role at Maccabi is broad, it doesn’t dilute the fact that as a striker, Mbesuma will be expected to provide goals that will win matches. He knows all too well that scoring goals is the primary reason he was signed and declares he will be challenging for the top scorer award – a feat he achieved twice in the PSL – once more. “I have to score goals,” he states. “As a striker you cannot hide. I’m not a defender or midfielder, so I have to score goals. I was signed to come and score goals, so I have to challenge for the top scorer award.” If the goals do indeed flow, the chances of Maccabi ultimately winning promotion in the same way that former third-tier clubs like Baroka, Chippa United and Highlands Park have done in recent years will no doubt exponentially increase. “That is the ambition of the team after all, from the management to coaches and the players,” Mbesuma says. “However, they are not putting us under pressure because they want us to enjoy our football first. As players, we know where we want to take this team as well.” Those who think the veteran striker has no intentions of playing PSL football again, with many writing him off as being well past his sell-by date, need to reconsider their view, according to the determined forward himself. “Yes I do,” he replies when asked about mulling over a possible return to South Africa’s top-flight. “I’m only 33. It happens all the time that people say Collins is finished, but I always come back. I can still be the top scorer again. People will always talk. When you are not playing, people will always talk and say you are finished. But it is fine with me … they can talk and say I am finished, but when I am playing I always know that something will happen. I will come back and be top scorer again. I am not talking about believing, but I am talking about what will happen.” His confidence may be misconstrued as arrogance, yet the striker insists that this is
"THIS IS A CHALLENGE I NEEDED BECAUSE SOME PEOPLE THOUGHT MBESYMA WAS GONE, BUT I'M BACK NOW."
merely who he is. “Football is my life and so if I don’t have confidence in myself, then it is better I stay at home,” he says. “I will do anything to see myself up again.” Still at stake for Mbesuma is Siyabonga Nomvethe’s all-time PSL top scorer record to chase. The retired AmaZulu veteran has 123 goals to his name while Mbesuma has scored 103 goals in South Africa’s top-flight, making him one of just five footballers to have netted a century of strikes since the inception of the league in 1996. The other three are Mabhuti Khenyeza (110), Daniel Mudau (108) and Manuel “Tico-Tico” Bucuane (104). “That record is also one of the reasons why I still want to come back to the PSL,” the Zambian says. “If Nomvethe has retired now at 41 and I’m still 33, what is that telling you? I’m 33 now so I can still reach that record of 123 and actually go past it. I’m a man of vision; I always have a vision. For now, I just want to focus on Maccabi because I want to see this team grow and hopefully we can play in the PSL soon.” His record of 35 goals in one season, which included 25 league strikes, is seemingly safe considering the Golden Boot winners’ tallies of late, with Mbesuma himself jokingly pointing out the one person who may still reach that coveted mark. “I have left all of that to God because it is only God who knows. If I’m still playing, I can also break the record myself since no one else seems interested,” the soft-spoken forward giggles. “What I have seen is that most strikers don’t believe in themselves. They don’t believe in wanting it all the time. As a striker you can miss goals, but don’t run away from the responsibility of taking the next chance. Don’t ever run away from that responsibility – keep going. Do you know that in the season when I scored 35 goals for Kaizer Chiefs, I was booed by the Chiefs fans after I went four games without scoring [in January 2005]? Through that period when the fans called for me to be substituted I never gave up, but kept my head up and continued training hard which is why I was able to come back and score goals. With other players, I know if they go four or five games without scoring and start getting booed, their confidence goes down badly. As a striker you must have self-belief, plus extra training is key because there is no way you can start scoring in a game when you have not been doing it at training. Even with me, if I don’t train shooting for one month I will lose that finishing touch, but if I’m doing it every week it becomes smooth.” The mention of his sons – who are also active in the game and play age-group football in Johannesburg – near the end of our interview brings out yet another wild laugh from Mbesuma. “We now have a competition in the house and they are actually the ones who push me the hardest,” he cackles. “After every game I have to explain to them if I didn’t score. And even with them, when we’re driving after their games, they also have to explain if they didn’t score. So the pressure for me starts in the house because I have three boys at home. They are aged 6, 11 and 13, so you can imagine the noise. The oldest boy is a midfielder-cum-striker while the second-oldest is a striker, but they are still kids so they might change positions just like I did when I was younger. I started out as a number three, but ended up playing as a striker.”
"THAT RECORD IS ALSO ONE OF THE REASONS WHY I STILL WANT TO COME BACK TO THE PSL."