I was angry with myself
“We were taught to reach for the stars and that’s what we did.
Und er stand ably,dtdbl there tends to be a lot of curiosity about a local player moving into an Absa Premiership side having come off a stint in Europe and having never played locally before. That some had never before heard the name Ayanda Nkili maded theth defender’sdfd’ move tto Polokwane City even more interesting. But, with the obscure kind of players, there are always stories, often of toil, hardship and struggle, and it is only when you sit down with them for a firsthand account that you get to realise just how long and arduous the road to the top has been. For starters, securing a move abroad for any local player is no child’s play. In this interview, the 28-year-old player gives Soccer Laduma’s Celine Abrahams the lowdown on his career.
Celine Abrahams: Ayanda, you joined Polokwane City at the beginning of the season. Not many know of your whereabouts before that. Let’s perhaps start this interview on that note…
Ayanda Nkili: Well, I was at Stellenbosch FC before coming to Polokwane. Other than that, I haven’t been playing here at home, as I was in Sweden. I went straight there from the Stars of Africa Academy. It’s been a long journey for me and I don’t even know where to start. Originally, I come from Lenasia and I wouldn’t say it is a footballing place, as it is isolated from the spotlight. I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to go to an academy like Stars of Africa. From there, things kind of took shape and direction.
CA: We see.
AN: I then got a call from the academy to join them. At that point, I was just about to quit football. That call from coach Farouk (Khan) made me change my mind. He made me realise that there was still more for me in football and that’s when I decided to take him up on the offer and give it another shot. Two to three years down the line, I found myself in Sweden.
CA: You can count your lucky stars for not throwing in the towel!
AN: Ha, ha, you can say that again! Being there helped me a lot. Coach Farouk is a great development coach, he gets into you and he knows how to bring out things that you didn’t even know about yourself. I can say that he brings you up from nothing to being this player that people start to take note of. The football knowledge that we all received, both technical and tactical, on and off the field, was great, especially at such a young age where we could grasp what was being taught to us. I must say that the academy really prepares you well for this demanding footballing world. It is tricky coming out here and trying to make it. There are a lot of challenges and a lot expected from you, so they gave us those elements on how we can deal with certain situations. It was a great place to be in and, whether you liked it or not, once you were in that camp, there was no way you were going to leave a bad player. You would always come out a better player than you were when you first walked in. There was so much talent in the academy and you worked so hard because you didn’t want to be left behind. I think when we saw how serious everyone else was, we also wanted to learn as much as we could and become better players. The academy brought back my faith and made me realise that I have what it takes to be at a big club in the country, but the aim was to go overseas.
CA: And overseas you did go, Sweden to be exact…
AN: Yeah! If you look at our (Stars of Africa) generation that came up, our main aim was to go overseas. If we couldn’t make it, then you’d try to find a team locally.. It’s not like we didn’t want to play at home, but obviously, at that time the standard of (South African) football wasn’t like it is now and we wanted more. We were taught to reach for the stars and that’s what we did. We woke up every day dreaming of making that move overseas. That was all we thought about and that is what motivated and pushed us. You look at guys like May (Mahlangu) who left before us… they were the guys that we looked up to. We wanted to follow in their footsteps because we saw that if they could do it, so could we.
CA: When you made the move, it must have been exciting and daunting in one go.
AN: Ja, especially at a young age. It takes a lot of sacrifices. You are away from home in a cold place, you don’t have that many friends and family around. It’s a big move to make, but you must be willing to take that challenge on. You have to be strong mentally. You can’t say that you want to go overseas and then, when you get there, you can’t take all the challenges that come your way. You have to pull through those first few difficult months and, as time goes on, you get used to being in that environment and then it is all about proving yourself. But it all depends on an individual. I know there are a lot of players who fail to make it and then decide to come back home because of the difficulties, but again, it all depends on the person. You have to know what you want.
CA: Goes without saying.
AN: You can’t let anything get in your way. I can’t speak for other players, I can only speak for myself. I knew that I had to be mentally strong because I wanted to make something of myself. It’s never easy going into those clubs, though, especially as a foreigner, but you have to go through them to be a better player. You learn a lot from being in those different places and clubs. It is a different world out there and it’s always nice to get a taste of that. It’s all about gaining that experience and then using it effectively. When you are there, you have to make sure that you take every opportunity.
CA: What do you mean when you say it’s not easy at those clubs, especially as a foreigner?
AN: It’s the language, the type of football that is played, having to deal with the weather – it’s not big things, but they do have an impact. Also, when you go into those clubs, the management is expecting you to perform better than the players from there. When you are in a different place, you are there to take someone’s job and, that being the case, you need to show them why you deserve to be there. You have to work twice as hard and that’s a big challenge. No matter how good I was, I had to work harder to beat my teammates. I could have done more, though. I could have done other things differently.
CA: What were those things?
AN: Ah, you know, it’s in the past and I don’t really want to go back there. But… err… I don’t know how to put it… I was used to be playing all the time and then there was one time when I was put on the bench for seven or eight games with no explanation. I never knew how to deal with that situation. It really broke me to a point where I started to doubt myself and my abilities. The frustration of being so far from home started to get to me and there were so many negative thoughts going through my mind. I was young and I didn’t know how to really deal with being in situations like that. That’s why I say it’s about you as an individual and how you are able to go through those trying times and get over that mountain. For me, it was my family, my girlfriend and my first-born at the time that helped me get through that difficult stage. Also, I had my Stars of Africa brothers around, which made things a bit easier. At first, when we were all around the same area, we would attend each other’s games, give each other advice and just be there for each other. When we started moving away because of different clubs, we would still keep in contact and chat on the phone. It felt good to have them around. Today, we are still very much in contact with one another. CA: So why did you decide to leave Orebro SK? AN: (Sighs) I wasn’t released from the club, so to say. I was offered a contract, but with the things that were happening, I couldn’t take it anymore. I felt that I deserved better. I really felt like I deserved more. I spoke to the coach there and I told him how I felt, and I just didn’t take the club’s offer. CA: That left you out of action for a year upon your return to Mzansi. AN: I returned home in November (2016) and I decided to take a break going into December. In January, when we had things going on with my agent, I went out and trained with the local clubs in Lenasia and, unfortunately, I broke my ankle. It was really bad and I was out of football for about three months, close to four. I was so, so angry! I was angry with myself, at everyone, even my agent! I was angry at him for not putting things into place earlier. I was supposed to go to Turkey, Azerbaijan, Finland – I had contract options, but which club was going to take me when I had injured myself? In August 2017, I decided to get my act together and get back into football. That’s when I joined Stellenbosch.
CA: That eventually culminated in a move to Rise and Shine.
AN: Yeah, that was a quick one – I got a call and was told that Polokwane were interested in me, I came to the club and everything was done. They saw me in one of the games I played and they saw me as someone that they wanted in the team. If it wasn’t for Stellenbosch, I wouldn’t be in Polokwane. That’s why I say everything happens for a reason. This is my new path and I am very happy with where I am. I’m enjoying my football, I have great teammates around me, great coaches and I am playing in a league that requires only the best. I couldn’t be happier.
CA: We also couldn’t be happier speaking to you about your football journey. Cheers.
AN: Thanks for the chat, Celine.
Facebook l Ayanda Nkili Aix Instagram l @ntutu_a