In the glory days of South African football in the mid and late nineties and even into the 2000s, South Africa had plenty of players excelling on the global football stage. Names like Benni McCarthy, Lucas Radebe, Shaun Bartlett, Eric Tinkler, Mark Fish, Andre Arendse and Phil Masinga were household names. They were playing in Europe’s biggest leagues and McCarthy and Radebe were featguring in the latter stages of the Champions League, with Benni having won the trophy with José Mourinho’s Porto in 2004.
Since then we’ve sadly seen a bit of a plunge in South African representation in Europe. But things may be looking up. Keagan Dolly’s January move to Montpellier in France was described by the player as a dream and he’s underlined his desire for more youngsters from South Africa to take the plunge.
Dolly’s transfer from Sundowns was a protracted one because of a contractual dispute. But his early displays in Ligue 1 have been those of a player who is settled, focused and ready to make a name for himself in a bigger and more prominent league.
Bafana Bafana in the meantime are currently on a 17-match unbeaten streak, the longest sequence in their history, which is made all the more impressive by the fact that they don’t currently have a permanent coach. Some of the players listed here are featuring prominently in that run, while others might be on the verge of a call-up that could see them in the Bafana setup for a very long time.
Here we look at five players sharpening their trade at less prominent European clubs. Who knows, maybe moves to even bigger clubs might be on the horizon too.
No better place to start than with the man who hails from the same area as Steven Pienaar. Westbury born and bred, Keagan Dolly knows a thing or two about hard work. The winger started his education at Mamelodi Sundowns but got snapped up by the fabled Ajax Cape Town academy aged 17. His performances in the Mother City earned him the PSL young player of the year award in 2014 and this made Sundowns realise their mistake in letting him go. He returned to the Brazilians in 2015 but found playing time hard to come by in a star-studded, expensively-assembled squad of experienced attacking players. A loan move back to Ajax followed and then, just to complete the yo-yo sequence, Dolly returned to Sundowns for the 2015/2016 season where he would win the PSL title and the CAF Champions League and earn a merited inclusion in CAF’s team of the year.
Interest from abroad was inevitable and it came from various high-profile clubs. Keagan Dolly now plies his trade for Montpellier in Ligue 1 and life in France has started well for the young man from humble beginnings. Dolly is mooted by many of his past coaches as the complete winger cum-playmaker/attacker. He’s quick, skilful and in possession of a fierce shot and accurate cross. He was regarded as one of the hardest working players in the PSL and that work rate off the ball and ability to adapt to a pressing and counter-pressing system mean that he’s very likely to succeed in Europe. He’s also versatile and equally comfortable operating between the lines or out wide. Watch out for Montpellier’s new number 20 in the coming seasons now that he’s acclimatised to the new weather.
Bongani Zungu is also an ex-Sundowns player with considerable experience in the South African Premier Soccer League. Affectionately referred to as ‘Ben 10’ by his fans, the 24-year-old is capable of producing magic just like his animated namesake. Zungu combines size with great technical ability and presence.
He started his professional career at TUKS but after a season at The Clever Boys, he was snapped up by the financial might and prestige of current African champions Mamelodi Sundowns, where he spent 3 productive seasons. The Guimaraes midfielder is equally comfortable orchestrating play from deep with his great range of passing as he is operating just behind a striker in the number 10 role. Ben 10’s Vitória de Guimarães side are currently 5th in the Portuguese Primeira Division.
At 26, Odendaalsrus-born Kamohelo Mokotjo is now a veteran of the Dutch Eredivisie after playing his football in The Netherlands since 2009. Mokotjo is a technical holding midfielder with a wide range of passing and the control and patience that comes for a player operating in a side that tends to hog possession.
Mokotjo retired from international duty for a lengthy spell after disputes with SAFA and his extended period in the wilderness has turned him into a criminally under-utilized player for South Africa. Fortunately, he has recently performed a U-turn on that decision and is part of the Bafana setup again and motivated to build on his paltry total of 6 caps. Encouragingly, Mokotjo was granted his South African citizenship after previously renouncing it.
Mokotjo’s steadfast attitude has seen him carve out an impressive career abroad and the midfielder is now one of the first names on the FC Twente team sheet.
His European education started at Rotterdam giants Feyenoord, but Mokotjie has found a home in the city of Enschede. Perhaps he’s also found a home again in the heart of the Bafana Bafana midfield and the team’s fans.
After a successful four-year youth stint at Bidvest Wits, deep-lying playmaker Lebogang Phiri made the move to Denmark to don the colours of Brøndby IF to become another success story in the fruitful academy relationship between the clubs.
Phiri didn’t make a senior appearance in South Africa because of his tender years, but moving as an 18-year-old to a foreign country with an entirely different climate has seemed to accelerate his development into a precociously mature and intelligent footballer. The downside of that, however, is his regular exclusion from Bafana Bafana squads because of the travelling distance involved to arrive at training camps.
If the talented midfielder keeps improving, however, it will be hard for him to be ignored. New York City FC coach Patrick Vieira has recently made an approach for the midfield schemer, and it’s hard not to see why.
If Phiri can continue improving and making waves around the globe, the 22-year-old will make the step up from Bafana outsider to midfield mainstay.
It’s easy to forget that Andile Jali is still only 26 years old. The dynamic midfielder was a part of the furniture at Orlando Pirates during a golden generation at the club where he won the double treble in a gloriously decorated stint at the Soweto giants. Jali’s rise started in humble surroundings, however, as a then-teenage central midfielder inspired TUKS (a National First Division team at the time) to the prestigious Nedbank Cup Final.
Andile Jali is the epitome of a box-to-box midfielder who has a bit of everything in his locker. Local commentators and supporters have nicknamed him Gattuso because of his tenacious and aggressive style that’s reminiscent of Italian enforcer Gennaro Gattuso, but there are a lot more strings to his bow.
He has an exceptional workrate, a low centre of gravity for a man so tall and the invaluable ability to win back possession in the middle third of the pitch. He can also score crucial goals and has a knack for winning trophies.
Jali will undoubtedly go down as an Orlando Pirates legend after his fabled midfield partnership with Oupa Manyisa, but right now he’s an integral player at KV Oostende, where he has made 82 appearances since moving to the Belgian Pro League in 2014. Expect Jali to add considerably to his 41 Bafana Bafana caps and remain a key player in the South African setup. He’s stepped up to the plate whenever it’s mattered in his career so far and there’s no reason to believe he won’t continue to do so for many matches to come.