The making of football genius Themba Zwane

From being overlooked in the amateur ranks to having to adapt quickly to playing football for Sundowns and being compared to Doctor Khumalo, Zwane’s rise has been as unpredictable as his game.

In township slang, “Mshishi” is a nickname with no direct translation. It’s bestowed on someone who is smooth or slick. Themba Zwane – unassuming and only recently emerging from his shyness of youth, yet the most destructive attacking force in the Premier Soccer League (PSL) right now – earned this nickname as a teenage footballer in reference to his exquisite skills.

Those who know him say it was part Zwane’s quietness that saw the prodigious talent overlooked as professional teams snapped up teammates Thabo Matlaba, Mthokozisi Yende and Punch Masenamela from Tembisa’s Mahlangu Tigers around the time South Africa was hosting the 2010 Fifa World Cup.

The late bloomer has eclipsed those early teammates. He is the source of the backheel surrounded by three defenders, the body swerve to beat a player that resulted in an opposing defender being forced to literally eat grass. His vision, control and final pass make Mamelodi Sundowns tick.

The Mahlangu Tigers coach in the 2010s was Jerry Sikhosana, the Orlando Pirates legend Zwane grew up four houses down from in Khalambazo Section, Tembisa. It was watching “Legs of Thunder” destroy Kaizer Chiefs in Soweto derbies on television, then arrive home in the flesh, that stoked young Zwane’s dreams of not only playing professional football but also doing it with magic.

Zwane’s mother, Lindiwe Zwane, died when he was “10, 11”, the Sundowns player says. Zwane’s dad, Mandla Mnguni, provided for him and his three half-sisters, although he left his father’s home and Khalambazo as a teenager to move in with his grandmother, Anna Mnguni, in Tembisa’s Ivory Park section. 

His family was poor but “we were just okay, because our father was always there for us”, he says.

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Sikhosana knew Zwane “as a babatjie (baby), when he was born. I mean, I was close to the family,” says the ex-Buccaneer. Zwane and Sikhosana’s son, S’thembiso, were inseparable friends. S’thembiso Sikhosana was a mean young footballer himself, but he gave up the game for a career in graphic design. 

Jerry Sikhosana says that was in part owing to politics, such as when the youngster was the top scorer in Tembisa’s famous Philly’s Games but the organisers withheld the R5 000 prize money when they found out whose son he was. 

As six- to seven-year-olds, Zwane, S’thembiso and their group would play on their street. Sometimes when Jerry Sikhosana came home from Pirates, the striker known for having glue that stuck the ball to his feet would have a kickabout with the boys then buy them a cool drink afterwards.

‘That’s my boy’ 

Jerry Sikhosana’s friend and early teammate at local side Tembisa Santos was Elias Sunday Mdluli, now a South African National Defence Force staff sergeant. When Zwane was eight, Mdluli, in his late 20s, was the coach for Santos who took the boys off the street to train and play on Khalambazo’s Ground No. 2. Sikhosana provided Santos’ equipment.

Reached on his cellphone, Sikhosana was just entering Ground No. 2 where he still sponsors Mdluli’s team, although it is now called Seven Stars. He handed his phone to Mdluli, Zwane’s first coach, now 52. Mdluli exclaimed of his prodigy: “Yes, that’s my boy!”

Confirming Zwane’s childhood ambition of emulating Jerry Sikhosana by dazzling in pro football for millions, Mdluli said: “I’m standing on the field now where he started to train. I’m watching some of the young boys, the same age. It’s amazing, he’s a really brilliant star that one. I’m a one-man soccer development coach. Mshishi and S’thembiso Sikhosana were two brilliant boys. They stood out from the other kids on the street, both playing in the middle of the park for me.

“Mshishi always wanted to do something brilliant. He wanted to become brilliant. I taught him, ‘Whenever you are in possession, create the space. And once the space is open, challenge the space.’ I’m so proud of that young man when I watch him doing that today for Sundowns.”

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Mshishi’s late development – arriving undoubtedly talented but seemingly too slender, too quiet a 21-year-old to break into a star-studded Sundowns in January 2011, and maturing each year to what he is now – can be traced to his grounding.

From Santos, he spent time with Tembisa’s other M-Tigers, Mighty Tigers. There he first came across Matlaba and now TS Galaxy midfielder Mbulelo Wambi, playing in the Tembisa United Football Association. He moved to the Vodacom League (third-tier) Tembisa Classic after it was bought by prominent East Rand club official Sinky Mnisi. Sikhosana took Zwane to Mahlangu Tigers.

“At Mahlangu Tigers, there were players like Punch Masenamela, Mthokozisi Yende and Thabo Matlaba,” Zwane said. “Matlaba went to Free State Stars and Yende [via Tuks] and Masenamela to Kaizer Chiefs. Wambi went to Tuks. It was a difficult time for me because I thought I would get a team by then. I was 21. I felt like nothing was going to happen. 

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“There was about two weeks I sat at home. I wanted to refresh my mind, to know what I wanted. My father said, ‘If you want to give up, that won’t help you. If the others got teams, those teams won’t take you because you’re friends with them. Try again.’ Then Sinky Mnisi called me to join his new team Vardos in the Vodacom [League], saying he would get people to come and watch me.

“He called SA Under-23 coach Shakes Mashaba to watch me. I was called to an Under-23 camp for a friendly in Cape Town. I came on in the second half against Botswana, and I met players like George Maluleka, Ramahlwe Mphahlele and Thandani Ntshumayelo. It was exciting for me because they were playing in the PSL.”

Playing for Sundowns 

Zwane did not know he was being tracked by then Sundowns assistant coach and club icon Alex “Barnes” Bapela. “I had heard that a Sundowns legend was coming to our games at Vardos, but I was not aware he was scouting. For me it was just about enjoying my games, having that belief that anything can happen, maybe someone would come to watch.

“When I met Barnes, he said he had been following me, even in the Philly’s Games. Because sometimes, he said, you could watch a player and find that some games they performed and others they relaxed. He said, ‘Philly’s Games, Vardos, the Under-23s… you were always on top.’”

From being unable to find a top-flight club, Zwane found himself at the most successful team in the PSL era. “Sinky Mnisi called me and said Sundowns wanted me. I thought I didn’t hear him properly. My mind was everywhere. He was talking but I was still thinking, and I asked him again, ‘What are you saying? How?’ He said, ‘No, I’m telling you.’

“He called me on a Monday and on the Thursday he called again and said, ‘Let’s go to Chloorkop.’ Sundowns said, ‘We want to sign a contract,’ and we did everything that day. It was amazing.”

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The raw Zwane arrived at star-studded Sundowns having only played in the Vodacom League and never having been part of a formal academy. “It was really difficult. I could feel there was a lot to learn. My first training, the ball moved fast, even though it was raining that day. When the ball moves that fast, you can’t even see where you need to go. But I took it as, ‘I just want to learn.’ I was not expecting to play.

“I met top players there: Surprise Moriri, Teko Modise, Matthew Booth, Esrom Nyandoro. After training they would call me and say, ‘From now on, go to gym. We’re just giving you advice so you can get better and be strong on the ball, because it’s very difficult here.’ I was close with Surprise and Teko, who had the same agent as me, Jazzman [Mahlakgane]. They would say, ‘Wait for your time, but be ready because you never know when you’ll be given a chance.’”

Zwane got beaten into shape after the arrival of one of the world’s toughest ever midfielders, Dutch Total Football great Johan Neeskens, as the coach of Sundowns. “With Neeskens you had to be strong on the ball, not lose it, but at the same time take a risk. My debut came against Santos in Cape Town. Neeskens actually said to me on the Monday, ‘I’m going to play you on Saturday. You need to prepare yourself.’

“I prepared, and, ja, I got Man of the Match. I even scored the third goal. We were leading 2-0, Santos came back to 2-2, and in the last minute we got the ball to [Katlego] “Killer” Mphela. Killer rolled it to me and I hit it first time.”

The Clive Barker influence 

Still, the bridge into Sundowns was a big one. Pitso Mosimane arrived as coach in December 2012. “We had a discussion, me, Coach Pitso and the technical team. They said, ‘We are going to buy players so we need you to go on loan to [Mpumalanga Black] Aces.’ Surprise told me that the loan did not mean I was a bad player. The loan meant, ‘Go there and get game time and help the team win games.’

“At Aces I found Clive Barker. It was amazing working with him. He gave you that confidence and made you feel you were the best. It was exciting to wake up and go to training because he had that energy. He said he wanted to see me creating and scoring goals. That’s what I did, and that’s when he said to me, ‘You remind me of Doctor Khumalo,’ and he even said it in the media. When I heard that, it said to me, ‘There’s something good I’m doing on the field now.’”

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Barker has a reputation as much for building players so they walk on air as what can only be interpreted as hyperbole. His comparison of Zwane, who had struggled at Sundowns, to Bafana Bafana and Chiefs legend Khumalo was shrugged off as the latter by many.

“Clive would say, ‘The people talking, they don’t know you. You need to show them. They didn’t see you properly at Sundowns. I am always with you and I can see you are a top player.’ He said, ‘I don’t care who says what, you remind me of Doctor Khumalo.’ That was special to me because we all know Doctor was a top player. It really motivated me. Whenever I was on the field, I had that confidence. I wanted to be in control of the game.

“Fortunately, I had teammates who wanted to win. I really enjoyed myself at Aces. Before I left, Clive told me that Aces wanted to buy me. He refused it. He said, ‘You don’t deserve to be here. I want you to go to Sundowns and fight for your place.’ 

“That’s when Coach Pitso called me back. He said, ‘You can see the players we have got here, but it’s up to you to raise your hand and say, ‘Coach, put me in, I want to do the job.’

“I started full of confidence. I was making things happen and motivated by the competition I found with a lot of quality players: Khama Billiat, Percy Tau, Keagan Dolly. I was doing a lot of extra. And whenever they gave me a chance, I was making use of it.”

A magnificent season

Tau came back to Sundowns from a loan in the first division, Billiat came into his own as the best attacker in the PSL, Hlompho Kekana matured into the most assured midfielder and Denis Onyango, struggling for game time at various clubs, became a giant among African goalkeepers. All that class came together for Downs to win the 2016 CAF Champions League.

Dolly, then Tau, were snapped up in Europe. The late bloomer stayed and continued to grow. Zwane has been magnificent this season, taking the role of Downs’ match winner to new levels. He finally understands his ability and uses it to master the ball.

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As Mosimane has left for Al Ahly, and Manqoba Mngqithi, Rhulani Mokwena and Steve Komphela have picked up the coaching baton, Zwane has only seemed to improve from the player who won the 2019-2020 PSL Footballer of the Season, Players’ Player of the Season and Midfielder of the Season awards. At 31, a move to Europe would not be easy. But Zwane has not written off that 2020-2021 might be his last season at Sundowns, ahead of him perhaps finding a smaller club abroad that would benefit from his quality.

“I was watching my games of last season, trying to be honest with myself and saying, ‘I did well, I have won this and this. But deep inside, if I am honest, I can take it up,’” he says. “A move overseas is something I have discussed with my agent. I said, ‘Just try and get a team. And if someone wants me, I will talk to Sundowns and go there. As long as I’m here, I will push myself. I won’t give up on that dream. And if something doesn’t come up, I will still push myself and try to help Sundowns and help the national team until I retire.”

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