Kick Off

Themba Zwane


The Mamelodi Sundowns midfielder is confident the side can conquer Africa again.

League titles, CAF Champions League and domestic cup competitio­n medals, an appearance at the FIFA Club World Cup and individual awards – Mamelodi Sundowns forward Themba Zwane has achieved it all in his illustriou­s career, which kicked off 10 years ago. If Sundowns wins the league title this season, it will be his fourth victory in a row and fifth overall. The 31-year-old sat down with KICK OFF editor Zola Doda to talk about his achievemen­ts, failing to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations, as well as what it would be like to take on Pitso Mosimane’s Al Ahly in the Champions League.

KICK OFF: Mshishi, welcome back to the pages of KICK OFF. Mamelodi Sundowns seem to be cruising on their way to the title for the fourth year – what makes this season different to others? Themba Zwane:

Honestly, competitio­n between clubs is still high just like previous seasons. In fact, this season it’s much higher because of the intensity our coaches want us to play. You can see, whenever we have the ball, we use speed to attack and whenever we lose it, we use speed to win it back, and we are always trying to press opponents. Our style of play is also different because we are now using a 4-3-3 formation and last season it was 4-4-2. We are trying to have the ball all the time and whenever we lose it we try to win it back. We want to dominate games and score goals. If you look at our goalscorer­s this season, even midfielder­s are scoring and defenders too. The coaches are encouragin­g us to have a go at opponents.

Why was it easy to adapt to the new formation?

It’s mostly what we do at training, and the coaches show us how Manchester City and Liverpool play so that we can know our moves individual­ly. If we know our moves, it’s going to be easy to apply that in a game situation. We understand what to do.

How do you manage expectatio­ns because surely, trying to win four league titles in a row is not easy?

It’s all in the mind. We always want to win, it’s in our culture to win. We have to give it all. It feels good finishing the season knowing that we have won something. You get motivated for the following season. We just want to win things all the time.

Last season you were on position two on the log until the last game of the season – would you consider that campaign more stressful than this one?

Last season was stressful because when we went into the ‘bio bubble’ we didn’t start well. We were stressing a lot, we didn’t play well but fortunatel­y Kaizer Chiefs were also not doing well. So, we



managed to recover. This season, it’s in our hands and now we have to work hard and make sure that we win the league.

How confident are you of winning the title because there are few matches left?

I’m confident that we will try to win as many matches as we can. I’m trusting my team – we are doing well so far. We want to maintain the form going forward. Personally, I’m feeling good too despite the fact that I had to travel with the national team and come back and play for the club. That was tiring but as a profession­al player I was expecting this situation. I try to rest as much as I can so I can recover, get an ice bath and feel fresh before the next training session.

So you rest more now compared to when you started out as a youngster?

[Laughing] Yes. Back then I was resting but at the same time always traveling home to see my family. But now the chances of seeing my family are few and far between because of back-to-back matches. When I joined Sundowns, I was also not playing as many matches as I do now. Now I’m playing more so I need to rest more and that will help me avoid injuries.

You have already won four league titles overall and that must feel special. What gives you the hunger to want to go for more?

Yes, winning is special but at the same time it’s not enough because I want to win more. As long as God gives me strength. I want to inspire kids from my township, I want to be an example to them that if Mshishi can do it, they can also do it. I just want to win so that these kids can see that they can also do it.

Last year was a tough year for everyone in the country due to COVID-19. What did winning the Footballer of the Season mean to you?

I wanted it, I wanted it so bad. The year before last I was nominated but it was won by [ Thembinkos­i] Lorch. I didn’t look down. I knew that my chance would come. When Lorch won, it inspired me because I saw it as an opportunit­y to improve myself.

What has changed in the CAF Champions League? It has always been tough but now it seems as if Sundowns have adapted well to the conditions in Africa.

Now we are used to playing in the Champions League, we know how teams approach matches when they play away compared to home. We are used to them, we understand them. We’ve been playing some of the teams for a while and we know their weaknesses. Now we give them the challenge – we go for it. We are used to the tempo of African football, which is very high. Those guys have good techniques and when you go there you must avoid giving away set pieces. They get a corner, goal! They get a free-kick outside the box, goal! We learned that we need to avoid them and defend set-pieces better. You need to up your tempo because they move the ball very quickly. And when you have the ball you need to be clever because they anticipate well. That was the challenge and we managed to overcome it.

Do you and your teammates talk about winning another Champions League like you did in 2016?

Winning the Champions League is something that we definitely want – we have to take it one game at a time though, and improve and learn in every game we play.

A dream Champions League match would be Sundowns versus Al Ahly. Do you agree?

[Laughing] Ja, that is true. That will be a game to watch. If we can play them we will approach it like we approached other tough games like TP Mazembe, we can give them a fight. We can go pound-topound with Al Ahly, they are a good team. We are also a good team. We can definitely go pound-to-pound with them. On a disappoint­ing note, you have failed to qualify for the African Cup of Nations with Bafana Bafana.

Ja, that disappoint­ed me because I was looking forward to go and play at Afcon again. It’s a great experience when you go to a tournament like that, you learn a lot as a player. But it’s football, it happens. The lesson I took from that was that you need to take your chances and you also need to take care of the ball. Whenever you give away the ball, opponents punish you. In internatio­nal football, why have you not achieved the same success you achieved at club level?

At internatio­nal level, honestly, I haven’t achieved the same level I did at club level – there were some games where I played and there were other games where I just didn’t. I also didn’t score as many goals – I still want to do better though.

It’s been now a decade since you made your profession­al debut. When you look back, is your career where you wanted it to be?

Obviously, I wanted to play overseas and that didn’t happen. I’m here now and I just want to win trophies. I’m happy with how things have gone even though I feel I should have got a chance to play overseas. Everything happens for a reason and only God knows.

Some players who don’t get to play overseas get affected and lose form

in the process. But with you it never happened, you just continued.

If you don’t get that move overseas, it makes you down. As players we want to go overseas so bad and when it doesn’t happen you are down and you end up not performing. If God didn’t give me that opportunit­y there is nothing I can do. I need to carry on and try to improve myself. I need to perform for Sundowns. What also helped me are guys like Surprise Moriri, who were there to encourage.

Just like Surprise, you seem to be down to earth and grounded.

That is one thing I learned from Surprise.

I was close to him when I joined Sundowns and he taught me a lot about how to treat people and how to react and respond to supporters. How to give them the time and communicat­e with them. Supporters are the people who support you when you need it and you must always give them time if they ask for pictures. Even when you have a bad day, you need to shrug it off and talk to supporters. Even supporters will tell you not to worry because these things happen. They will encourage because they care. That’s why I always give them all the time when they need it.

Who have been the most influentia­l people in your career?

Teko Modise, Cheeseboy [Lebohang Mokoena] and Hlompho Kekana have had a massive way. When I got to Sundowns I looked at how they were playing. Teko had just played at the 2010 World Cup and I never thought I would share the dressing room with him so soon. It was amazing how he was pushing himself at training, when you see that you get encouraged. And I told myself that this is a life I want to live. I was competing with Cheeseboy for the same position, but he is the one who was always encouragin­g me. He helped to adjust to the team.

If you can give young Themba Zwane advice – what would you say?

I would tell him stay focussed and make use of opportunit­ies that he gets. The mistake that we normally make in life is that we don’t make use of our chances because we always think there is another chance coming.


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