Unfinished business in Europe
Having once featured among the development ranks of both Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates, Mihlali Mayambela always appeared destined to enjoy a successful career in professional football. The Khayelitsha-born winger’s future ultimately lay away from Soweto and indeed South African football, however, and he has since made a name for himself across Europe instead, forging a path through Sweden and Portugal thus far. KICK OFF’s Liam Bekker caught up with the Farense star, who recently made his 50th league appearance for the club, to reflect on his journey to date, while casting an eye on his ambitious aspirations for his future abroad.
Mihlali Mayambela hails from a footballing family that includes older brother Mark, who became a household name on the domestic scene following spells with the likes of Bloemfontein Celtic, Orlando Pirates and Ajax Cape Town.
Although nine years apart in terms of age, the siblings enjoyed a similar start to their respective careers, and both had their talents honed by the Old Mutual Football Academy in Cape Town during their formative years.
“I started playing football in the hood, playing street soccer,” Mayambela says, reflecting on where it all began for him. “I think at the age of seven I was already playing football at primary school and that’s when I started to enjoy it, rather than the other sports.
“I then went on trial at the Old Mutual Academy at the age of 11 and I was selected, and my brother was also there.”
It was shortly thereafter that the older sibling joined then-Premiership side Celtic, but the younger Mayambela remained in Cape Town, where he consistently impressed at age-group levels older than his own.
His performances soon caught the attention of some of the biggest clubs in South Africa and it wasn’t long before he earned an opportunity to audition for a spot in Soweto giants Orlando Pirates’ development team.
“I went to trial at Orlando Pirates in Johannesburg, but it didn’t really go well for me because I was not used to that level,” he admits. “It was a bit different for me, so I had to go back to Cape Town later that year.”
As fate would have it, Mark completed a transfer to the Buccaneers in 2010 in a move that opened the door for Mihlali to take a second shot at joining the club, and this time he made it stick.
“Luckily enough my brother signed for Pirates and then the following year I got to trial there again, and I was selected. I played there for one season and after that I went to Kaizer Chiefs’ development team.
“I think I was there for two or three years until my brother went to Sweden [to join Djurgårdens], then I came back to Cape Town.”
Stepping out of his brother’s shadow
Upon his return to the Western Cape, Mayambela joined the now-defunct ASD Cape Town from where he was picked up by Cape Town All Stars shortly after, and it was
there that the still-school-going star was able to play with a newfound freedom.
“To be quite honest with you, I started to really, really believe in myself in terms of football when I came back to Cape Town and signed with All Stars,” he says. “When I was at Pirates, I had some difficulty because of the expectations and because I’m Mark’s brother. Then I went to Chiefs, and it was the same thing and because of the expectations I wasn’t playing football freely. But when I went to Cape Town, I was a bit wiser and a bit older.”
Mayambela speaks honestly when he reflects on the unintended pressures associated with following in his brother’s footsteps, but insists that they have always been there to push each other in their respective careers.
“To be honest, it became a bit of a competition when I became professional but it’s a healthy competition. We joke with each other about football, about who will score more goals, who will get more assists, who will have more Man of the Matches, things like that.
“It’s all just to push each other. Both of us have always dreamed to play in the same team together but, unfortunately, until now that hasn’t happened, but we have a healthy competition and we push each other, nothing more than that.
“He watches all my games, and when I am available, I watch all of his games, and we talk and rectify our mistakes together.”
Moving abroad at a young age
Mayambela’s move to All Stars ultimately proved to be the catalyst for his eventual transfer abroad as it was there that he was spotted by the scouts who offered him the chance to join Swedish side Djurgardens.
“I joined ASD and from there I went to Cape Town All Stars while I was doing my Matric,” he explains. “That’s when I believed I could become a professional footballer at a good level. If I remember well, my last Bayhill Tournament was during that time, and I got triggered knowing that it was my last one. I knew that I had to [perform].
“I had a different feeling about it. I believed that I could do something for myself and luckily enough, it went well, and that opened doors for me. The move to Sweden came about after that tournament because a lot of teams were interested.
“I had offers from Holland, I had offers from Swansea [City] – they were interested but because of the visa problems a bid didn’t materialise – so I went to Sweden.
“I chose Sweden because my brother was there [before] and I thought that would make it easier for me to adapt. I trained with the team, and I remember, I went there in September  and then I came back to finish the year at All Stars, and then the following January I went to sign the contract.”
Aged only 19, he made his senior debut for the club as a late substitute during a Swedish Cup match against Hammarby in March before going on to end his maiden campaign abroad with a return of a goal and two assists in 13 appearances across all competitions.
“It was difficult at first. It was very, very difficult,” he reflects on his first few months in Sweden. “It’s a different environment, different players and I didn’t know anybody. I was there by myself, and my family was not around.
“Of course, it was not the first time being away from my family, but being in Europe is very different to being in Jo’burg. But as time went on, I think it became better and better. I tried to understand [the language] and gel in the team in order to become better associated with my teammates when I was there and after that, it went much better.”
After enjoying his first taste of football on foreign soil, Mayambela was loaned out to Superettan side Degerfors for the following season in order to gain further match experience and excelled in the second tier, contributing seven goals and four assists in his 30 appearances for the club.
That prompted a subsequent loan spell to IK Brage in 2018, which was cut short midway through the year when his impressive performances caught the attention of Farense and their South AfricanPortuguese president, João Rodrigues.
“I left Brage when the season was still on to go to Portugal,” Mayambela elaborates. “I received interest from four or five different teams, but I chose Farense. They have a president who is half South African and half Portuguese, so maybe that’s why I came here.
“I thought maybe it would make it easier to adapt because I knew there would be a difficulty again in terms of the language and the city. And it has, it has helped a lot.”
“WHEN I WAS AT PIRATES, I HAD SOME DIFFICULTY BECAUSE OF THE EXPECTATIONS AND BECAUSE I’M MARK’S BROTHER.”
Making his name in Portugal
Mayambela hit the ground running in Portugal and starred as one of Farense’s key players during the 2018/19 LigaPro campaign. He made 32 appearances in the league – the joint-most by any player at the club – and scored four goals as Farense ended the term in 10th position, laying the foundations needed for the Faro-based outfit to secure promotion to the Primeira Liga at the end of the subsequent season.
However, his personal contribution to the club’s return to the top-flight (two goals in 16 appearances) was limited in what was a COVID-19 hit year.
After a disagreement with then-coach Sérgio Vieira, he left on loan to Israel midway through the campaign.
“In the season we won promotion to the First Division, I played until January but there was a confusion, or misunderstanding between me and the coach at the time so I had to seek a move elsewhere,” Mayambela explains.
“It was nothing personal, but I had to move on because I believed at the time that I was maybe not needed. He was not satisfied with some things, and I was not satisfied with some things.
“The move came to go to [Bnei Yehuda] in Israel and it went well. I played there for six months, but unfortunately because of the COVID situation and an injury I sustained, I had to come back to Farense despite it being a loan with an option to buy.”
Upon his return to Portugal, Mayambela found himself frozen out at his parent club and spent the next six months training with the reserves, before rediscovering his form during a short-term loan with Académica de Coimbra.
“I couldn’t leave Farense [after returning from Israel] because we didn’t find an agreement,” he expands. “I was training with the reserve team until January, and then in January I pushed to go somewhere to play, and Académica was the team. I only started to play regularly for them late on as my physical conditioning was not up there because I was effectively out for six months.
“All of my appearances at the start were from the bench. Bench, bench, bench, and then I started to play in the last few games and contributed with three goals. I wasn’t good physically at the beginning and the coach understood that.
“He knew when he called me that I was not physically where I need to be, but he still wanted me to come because he believed that I could help.”
Mayambela’s late flurry helped fire Académica up the league standings where the club narrowly missed out on a spot on the promotion play-offs, falling just three points short of Arouca at the final reckoning.
His performances did not go unnoticed back at Farense either, where Vieira had been sacked just days after Mayambela’s departure. Jorge Costa replaced the 38-year-old at the helm and was quick to reintegrate the South African winger into his squad for the current campaign, during which he notably passed the milestone of 50 league appearances for the club in back in September.
A European stay
While Mayambela has played himself back into contention at Farense, his longterm future at the club remains in doubt as his contract is set to expire at the end of the 2021/22 season.
“I can only speak of what I know today, not something that might happen tomorrow, because I don’t know if I will be here tomorrow or somewhere else,” the 25-year-old admits.
“No talks have been held yet so we will see what will happen. I want to be where I will play football and enjoy doing what I’m doing, whether that is at Farense or somewhere else. So, I will take it day by day and game by game and see what the future holds.”
Mayambela is certain to attract numerous suitors given his performances over the last five years, where he has featured in over 100 matches across his spells in Sweden, Portugal, and Israel, and it is on the European continent where he hopes to remain in the years to come.
“That [to build a career in Europe] is what was on my mind when I first left home. I want to stay here as long as I can. I have never had any feeling of going back home and I’m grateful that, up until today, I am still here and I’m looking forward to the future.”
Mayambela’s ambition to succeed abroad is overwhelming and comes across powerfully in his insistence that a return to South Africa is not a consideration for his immediate future.
“With all due respect, no. No, no, no. I have sacrificed a lot [to be here]. I had a son at a young age. When I arrived in Sweden, my son was born, so after all these years that I’ve been away from him, it wouldn’t make sense for me to give up now and let everything go just like that.
“I have to continue doing what I’m doing, growing as person and as a player.”
“NO TALKS HAVE BEEN HELD YET SO WE WILL SEE WHAT WILL HAPPEN.”