“I know that I am blessed with talent, raw talent,” Bongani Zungu said in a matter-of-fact tone. He wasn’t boasting, just stating a fact.
“I never played in an academy,” the Bafana Bafana midfielder said at the team’s base for the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), just outside Cairo International Airport. “I am not saying it’s wrong to play there, but when I motivate youngsters, I tell them that it’s not the end of the world to not be in an academy, your talent and determination can take you far.
“I remember that I went to [Mamelodi] Sundowns to trial for their Under-15 team. Their coach told me that I am not ready to play there. I wasn’t demotivated by that. I just worked harder. Eight years later, I signed with the first team and that coach was still in the Under-15s. I went to him and asked him if he remembers telling me that I am not ready. But we are good.
“All I am trying to say is that, it’s all about hard work. I’ve got raw talent. I was born with this. I am happy with the type of player I am. I am looking to grow, learn every time and keep the good and positive people around me. I want to be a better person off the pitch, too. That’s what I have learned in Europe. Who you are off the pitch shows on the pitch.”
From Duduza to playing against the best in the world
In August, Zungu will be starting his fourth season in Europe. The Amiens midfielder said that with pride. It’s been a long and tough journey that started in Duduza on Gauteng’s East Rand, taking him to Giyani with Dynamos in the first division and then the country’s capital with Tuks (University of Pretoria) and Sundowns before he went to Portugal, and eventually landed in Ligue 1, home of the reigning world champions. France is also home to the brightest star in football, Kylian Mbappe, and the world’s most expensive player, Neymar, who joined Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) after the Qatari-owned club forked out $262 million (about R3.7 billion) for the Brazilian.
Zungu has come up against the talented pair, along with other world-class players like Marco Verratti, Nicolas Pépé, Edinson Cavani and Julian Draxler. Facing these players is no longer enough for Zungu, he wants more.
“I have to play for big teams. That’s where I want to see myself, not only playing against them. Playing against them doesn’t really excite me anymore. I want to share the pitch, dressing room and a team with someone like Neymar for example. I am very happy for now. I will continue to work hard and try my best because I want to play at the top.
“The top is the [Uefa] Champions League. The top is big teams,” he said, pointing at a Bayern Munich T-shirt. “I have played against the big teams. I played against Benfica in Portugal. I have played against PSG, Lyon and them in France. Seeing myself playing against those guys has motivated me. I see myself matching them, matching their standard. I want to play in the biggest competitions with the best players, and I am working towards achieving that goal.”
Zungu will achieve that goal in national colours on Saturday 6 July. Bafana Bafana take on Egypt in the last 16 of the continent’s ultimate prize, Afcon. When the national anthems are sung in a packed Cairo International Stadium just before 9pm, Zungu and his teammates will catch a glimpse of one of the best players in world football at the moment, Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian talisman has the hopes of millions on his shoulders, millions who want the Pharaohs to claim a record eighth African title.
Sitting at the pool, with a humidity-laced breeze blowing in his face, Zungu cut a calm figure even though a baptism of fire, much worse than that day’s 40°C, awaits him and Bafana. The previous day, 2 July, Zungu and company sat at the pool anxiously watching Mali take on Angola in the last round of the group stage matches, with their place in the last 16 hanging by a thread. Bafana needed Mali to beat Angola to reach the knockout stage, having cheered for Cameroon earlier in the day against Benin.
‘We should be chilled’
The Indomitable Lions couldn’t do Bafana the favour of beating Benin, pushing the South Africans from third to last spot in the table of the best third-placed teams who would go to the next round. A draw for Angola would have eliminated Bafana, but Mali held on for a 1-0 win that saw South Africa squeeze into the last 16 as one of four best third-placed teams.
In contrast, Egypt powered their way into the knockout stage. The Pharaohs won all three of their games without conceding a goal. But Zungu was quick to respond about who should be worried on Saturday in a match that pits the seven-time African champions against a team that last looked like genuine Afcon contenders almost two decades ago, when they finished third in the 2000 Afcon tournament co-hosted by Ghana and Nigeria.
“They are playing at home, they should be more stressed,” Zungu said. “We should be chilled. This is what football is all about. This is where big players are made. It should be a good game. It should be intense. We will play our game and improve from our last performance against Morocco and our performance in the group stage. I am expecting fireworks. I am expecting a top game. We have to try our best to do good.”
Bafana haven’t done much good in this tournament. In fact, they haven’t done anything. They finished two games (against Ivory Coast and Morocco) without a shot on target. Zungu’s goal against Namibia was the only highlight of their poor performance in the group stage. The near-elimination scare should be the wake-up call they needed to dust themselves off and finally show up in a tournament where they have been a shadow of their real selves.
But for Zungu, there have been a lot of positives during his time in Cairo. The goal and game time are a welcome change for a player who spent the better part of last season nursing a knee injury. His club allowed him to go home and recover with family around and that did a lot for his soul. He spent time with his rock, his mother.
“She’s a strong woman,” Zungu said. “She is straightforward. She doesn’t care about the fact that I am a breadwinner. She tells me straight. If I mess up, she tells me. She has always been like that. Ever since I was young. She helped me grow. I am the man that I am today, I went to Europe and I live alone, and that’s down to everything she taught me. I am strong mentally because of her.”
Praise gone wrong
The Twitter storm Zungu created and then threw himself into the middle of tested his mental resolve. While praising his mentor and former Sundowns’ assistant coach Rhulani Mokwena – Zungu has previously said he would have gone and played overseas sooner if he had worked with Mokwena at a younger age – the 26-year-old insulted two coaches. Zungu insinuated that Mokwena was the brains behind Orlando Pirates’ resurrection, instead of coach Milutin “Micho” Sredojevic. When asked to explain what he meant, he hinted that the same happened at Sundowns where Mokwena served as Pitso Mosimane’s second assistant.
Zungu drew the ire of Sundowns and Pirates’ fans, along with Bafana Bafana legend Benni McCarthy. Not one to mince his words, McCarthy responded with a clapback that reverberated from Cape Town to Amiens.
“The people and the media made it big. But us – I, coach Pitso and coach Rhulani – we talked on Whatsapp and called each other. We handled it well,” Zungu said.
“I made coach Pitso understand what I meant. I told myself that I don’t have to explain myself on Twitter or talk to a stranger. I made him understand and he understood. I spoke to coach Rhulani and made him understand. He was very hard on me at first. But I also explained to him that this is what I meant.
“The other people and the coaches who came to Twitter to attack me, I told myself that it’s fine. Coach Pitso and I are good. The president [of Sundowns, Patrice Motsepe] and I are good. We met in Paris and we spoke about it. We’re good.”
Zungu speaks about Mosimane with genuine affection. The 2016 Confederation of African Football Coach of the Year changed Zungu’s life and outlook on football. But before Mosimane changed his life, Steve Barker showed him the way.
“When I was at Tuks, that’s when it clicked that I can make a career out of football,” Zungu said. “Coach Barker made me realise that I am good. Through the years, when I was young and trying to break into the academies, I had a lot of disappointments and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen to my career. I went to Dynamos and it was tough there. I left the team early. It was a lot. But when I went to Tuks, coach Barker showed me another side of life and what’s possible. I realised that it’s possible to get into big teams. You just need to work hard.”
Changing from a 10 to a 6
Mosimane then came into the picture and converted him from a playmaker to a central midfielder. It was the second time he changed his position having started as a centreback.
“It was very difficult for me because I wanted to do these kasi flavour things. I wanted to be a star, like Khama Billiat, Keagan Dolly and Percy Tau. But he made me see life and football in a different way. That’s when I started getting recognition from Europe. I always tell him about this, I am sure that he is tired of hearing this. He built a stronger Bongani on and off the pitch.
“I remember buying my first house, for example. He played a big role in that. He brought people from the bank and spoke to me about this thing of saving money. At the time, I was young and I wanted to enjoy my life. Here is this old man, he comes to me and tells me that I need to save money. And here I am thinking, ‘Hey broer, I am 21 years old. Let me enjoy life.’
“But now, five years later, I am looking at the things that I have and I realise that this guy played a big role in this. He came to eDuduza to talk to me. I almost signed with SuperSport United at the time because there was this thing that Sundowns will kill your career. He came and spoke to me, spoke to my family and won us over. I went to Sundowns when there were still big names, ngavele ngafitter (and I just fitted) into the system. He made me feel at home. I’ll never forget those things, no matter what happens.”
It’s only a matter of time before Zungu makes a big move from Amiens, a move that will see him play Champions League football. A good performance at Afcon won’t hurt those ambitions, especially with millions in Egypt, the rest of the continent and parts of the world watching. Their gaze might be fixed on Salah, but the heart is a fickle thing when it comes to the beautiful game. A moment of brilliance can win over even the most ardent of haters.
Most people might watch the game craving Salah magic, but they will feast on any beauty and magic they are given. On his day, Zungu has wands for feet. That will come in handy if Bafana Bafana is to continue their great escape.
“Confidence wise, I am up for the challenge,” Zungu said. “The difference between this Bongani and the one who left South Africa three years ago is growth and maturity. I see things on the pitch that I didn’t see before.”