At 12, Ndumiso Phungula was already a popular striker in Msinga, KwaZulu-Natal. He was even encouraged to take football seriously as a potential solution to the country’s goal-scoring problems.
After seeing how talented he was, a relative promised that he would organise a trial for Phungula with Moroka Swallows in Johannesburg. But his dreams came to a crashing halt when he landed awkwardly on his back while showing off his skills. He had been trying to score a wonder goal with a bicycle kick during a match in a popular Easter-holidays tournament in Esidakeni, outside Msinga. The games were played at the area’s bumpy gravel pitch. Phungula fell on his back and was badly injured.
He did not know at first that his injury was severe, that he would no longer play football, or that he would never walk again. It is a fact he had to accept after a two-year journey of going in and out of various hospitals. He was told he would need to use a wheelchair to move around.
“It was a difficult time for me. All I had dreamed of at the time was turning professional and becoming a good role model for the kids in this area because there are not many sports success stories in these parts,” says Phungula.
Never gave up
Now 28, Phungula can still be seen on the dusty fields every afternoon, training young boys who share his passion for the game. He started an Under-15 team and called it Carnnibul FC. He finances it although his only source of regular income is the government disability grant he receives monthly.
“What happened, happened… Now I have decided to focus my attention on helping the young boys realise they can become big stars, that it does not matter that they come from these dusty lands. If I can get just one boy to turn professional, that would be big for me. It would satisfy my soul. I would die a happy man knowing that I opened an opportunity for a better life for someone else,” he says.
However, training young boys has not been easy. Using a wheelchair makes it more difficult for him to coach as well as he would love to. His team is in the South African Football Association’s amateur leagues now, and it is a level that demands more from a coach. Phungula cannot, for example, demonstrate certain movements and skills to the boys. All he can do is try verbally to explain moves. He admits he sometimes wishes he could just stand up and show them.
“It can be frustrating,” he says. “But it has been a good challenge for me, [and it] makes me look forward to the future because I really want to see these boys becoming household names like I would have been…”
His biggest challenge however is when they have matches. “Because of the kind of area we are in, we have to travel to other places which are far from here for games. Sometimes I would travel with my boys pushing me for 15km or more depending on where the game is… And this sometimes takes a toll on my body and I end up in the hospital and the doctors have told me that I will die if I continue like this, but it is my only passion. It is the only thing that makes me feel alive.”
With lockdown regulations pausing the playing of all sporting codes, Phungula says it has not been easy. “I was even tempted to go back to training but I thought what if something happens… the parents would blame me for it.”
His plan is to do a formal coaching course so he can be better equipped to help his young boys become better players. “I was planning on doing one but then Covid-19 came. As soon as the courses start, I am enrolling for one. Smart Ndlovu [coach of former ABC Motsepe League side Natal United] is the one who encourages me. The little knowledge that I have now is through him. I speak to him and get ideas on how to keep the boys interested and motivated,” he says.
Phungula has also joined the South African Football Coaches Association. He is in the organisation’s WhatsApp group and says he is learning a lot from experienced coaches like Zipho Dlangalala and Sudesh Singh.
“Interacting with the various coaches on the platform has helped me. There are regular discussions on new trends in the coaching fraternity, and that has helped me a lot. I am just waiting for the official courses to be opened so I can attend and equip myself formally. The dream now is to get into professional football and maybe coach in one of the premier league teams’ academies,” he says.
He is also grateful to three-time Comrades Marathon winner Bongumusa Mthembu, who has become his mentor. Mthembu visited Phungula at his home in July and presented him with footballs and a new, lighter, wheelchair.
“The equipment that Mthembu brought has been very helpful. With Covid restrictions [in the different alert levels], we have had to split the team into small groups when we train. The balls will help because most of our drills involve [it],” Phungula says.