“I’m not surprised with the way I started the season,” says Veluyeke Zulu matter-of-factly, sounding like a veteran of top-flight football even though he’s only just got his big break.
“If you work hard and [are] determined to achieve something, then results will show up. Throughout my career, whatever I have achieved is a result of hard work. I always push myself to the limit.”
The journey to the top hasn’t been easy for the Chippa United defender. There were many disappointments and rejections along the way, but he defied his name and never gave up. Zulu missed out on Nike’s The Chance in 2011, a programme that gave youngsters a golden opportunity to be trained by respected coaches around the world. The programme deployed the winner to various clubs with the aim of helping to gain experience and perhaps a professional contract. Mamelodi Sundowns’ goalkeeper Reyaad Pieterse is the most successful graduate of the programme in South Africa.
“When I attended those trials at Moses Mabhida outer field, I was one of the players who did well throughout. I managed to be selected till the last round, where the selectors didn’t choose me,” the 26-year-old said.
“I was gutted because I thought I did well. I took … [the rejection] pretty hard. I respected the selector’s decision and moved on [though]. That’s where I started to understand that not everyone would like your style of play. Some would have quit football, but I told myself other opportunities will come. I was only 16 years of age doing grade 10 then. I went back home to continue to play football. Those trials played a huge role in my life and made me strong. I started to think positively in life based on that experience. I needed to start chasing my dreams.”
The art of patience
Zulu, who comes from Ulundi, thought of leaving his hometown in the north of KwaZulu-Natal after finishing matric at Nomzimana High School. But he decided to stay when the club from Pietermaritzburg, the province’s capital, held trials.
“I was about to pack my bags to relocate to Durban in search of better opportunities, I heard that Maritzburg United will host the trials in our area,” he said. “I was excited because it was the first time I attended trials since the one I had with Nike. So when I arrived there, I remember Mandla Ncikazi was one of the selectors as he was still the assistant coach of the club. I think I was the first player to get selected during that time.
“The experience I gained from the [Nike] trials in Durban propelled me to master the trials with ease … Things went smoothly for me as I obtained a professional contract with the club. That’s where our relationship with Coach Ncikazi started, because he later persuaded me to join [Golden] Arrows when he switched into the club. He spotted my talent and I regard him as my father figure in football.”
Despite Ncikazi’s familiarity, Zulu’s time at Arrows was difficult. He left to play in the first division with Richards Bay FC. “For a player to perform well, he must be in a good environment. A player can’t perform when he is no longer happy and the club can’t keep paying for the services of a player who doesn’t contribute much to the team. I can’t go talk much about why I left Arrows, but I wasn’t happy anymore.
“The decision to leave Arrows and then join Richards Bay was an easy one because I had known chairman Jomo Biyela for quite some time, as he was interested in signing me a long time ago while he was still at Thanda Royal Zulu. When I signed for the club, many [people] thought I’m taking a step back in life because I would be playing in the lower division. But deep down I knew what I wanted. I needed to be in a club where I can find consistency and play regularly.
“The decisions we take in life won’t excite all people, but rather focus on something that makes you happy. During my four years with the club, I learned to be patient in life, which contributed to my growth as a footballer. That’s where I enjoyed the best football of my career and I would forever be indebted to them.”
‘Feels like home’
Zulu’s golden ticket to top-flight football came after Richards Bay achieved a shock win over Kaizer Chiefs in the round of 32 at the Nedbank Cup in February. “I won’t lie to you, many clubs were interested in signing me. You have to look at the offers and choose what you think will work for you,” he said.
“Chippa came with the offer I believe suited me and I couldn’t let it go. Plus, I needed to play under the coach with a lot of coaching experience so he can guide me. To play under Gavin Hunt, whom I believe is one of the best coaches in the country, has helped me adapt easily to the team. All these performances I have been showing this season are a result of him. The way he gives himself time to understand the players has contributed to understanding his tactics better. I don’t regret signing here because It feels like home.”
The club didn’t share Zulu’s faith in Hunt, putting the three-time league-winning coach on suspension on 15 November, following what the Chilli Boyz called its “worst start” in the league with just one win, seven losses and two draws after their first 10 matches. Kurt Lentjies was roped in as caretaker coach. But Zulu is confident the club will bounce back despite the dreaded axe looming.
“My primary focus at the moment is to help the club to turn things around. We have started the season badly, which I think is somehow a good thing because we have to rectify our mistakes quickly,” he said.
“Sometimes when you are winning, you start to think everything is perfect. When I joined Chippa, I aimed to win trophies one day and that hasn’t changed. I’m still committed and determined to achieve that goal.”
Those aren’t Zulu’s only lofty targets. “It is every South African footballer’s dream to play for Bafana Bafana. One day, I also want to do so. But I won’t rush the process and put myself under pressure to say I’m ready to be called up to the national team. I’m such a patient person in life and I believe the coach would give me a chance when the time is perfect.”