The 18-year-old player’s will to win has made him one of the hottest young talents in South African football today
“I play to be remembered”
Johannesburg-born Phakamani Mahlambi left home at the age of 13 with one desire: to make it as a professional footballer in a country with an abundance of raw talent, but one where many young men never realise their dreams. Now 18, Mahlambi is turning heads in his role as an attacking midfielder for Premier Soccer League team Bidvest Wits – so how did he do it?
“When I first saw Phakamani play, I was struck by his sheer pace and his audacious tenacity to do the unthinkable,” says his agent, Glyn Binkin. “He kept the opposition players guessing for the entire game and was a menace. I have no doubt that he will end up playing in Europe.”
Mahlambi has that killer combination: raw footballing talent and the wisdom to choose his mentors wisely. It helps if you have a brother willing to go under the knife for you, too…
THE RED BULLETIN: Your father, John Zachariah Mahlambi, gave up his job to start a football team and coach you after witnessing your talent at the age of just nine. What did that mean to you?
PHAKAMANI MAHLAMBI: It meant so much. My father’s actions gave me a platform to learn the game. Today, both my parents are unemployed, but I cut my salary in two: half of it goes to my family and the other half to me. I’m helping to build them a new home, which will soon be finished. My club and my business manager help me make good financial choices and save for the future.
How did you go from your father’s team in Vryheid, KwaZulu Natal to PSL club Bidvest Wits?
I stayed with my father’s team for about three years, then left home after successful trials for the SAFA [South African Football Association] School Of Excellence in Gauteng. Everything at the School Of Excellence was free, so there was no burden on my parents, though leaving their home at 13 was a sacrifice for me. Then Glyn Binkin spotted me and I got the move to Bidvest Wits. He felt the team would be a good choice for me, because coach Gavin Hunt was someone who gave young players a chance. They treated me well from the start, and even though I had a few things to learn, I soon settled.
Hunt also coached Benni McCarthy, and says that you’re the better player at 18. How does that feel?
I choose to stay humble when people give me praise, and just focus on training hard. The coach is working closely with me to improve my game tactically, physically and mentally. There’s a long way to go, but where I come from… my background was a struggle, so that gives me my motivation.
Your teammates describe you as fearless, and say that makes you extremely dangerous to defenders…
I just don’t like to be beaten. My aim is always to be on top and win. I play to be remembered, not admired.
You played a key role in SA’s Under-23s qualifying for the Olympics in Rio. But a cruel knee injury (anterior cruciate ligament) has ruled you out of the Games. How is your recovery going?
It’s going well. The doctors wanted to take some tendon from my hamstring to repair my knee, but my pace would have slowed if they’d done that. Then they said they could use my father’s hamstring, but my older brother, Mthobisi, said, “No, take mine.” So he’ll be close to my heart forever – my hero, my twin, my everything.
Someone else who has invested in you is former South African international Lucas Radebe. What role does he play in your life?
I went round to Lucas’ house and had a chat with him. He told me how Glyn had looked after him as a young player and then further on in his career, and he talked about life choices after football. Lucas gave me some quality insights on personal finances, life off the field, and how to stay focused throughout my time playing the game – and beyond. I’m very grateful to him for that.