JOHANNESBURG – Out in the streets of Guimarães, a medieval/modern town in Portugal where Bongani Zungu plies his trade for Vitória de Guimarães, the shadow of South African legend Benni McCarthy hovers over him each time he goes out for a walk.
And that’s because the locals still remember the kind of football McCarthy brought to FC Porto with his goal-scoring prowess, after having joined the club from Celta Vigo.
Not only did he finish as the top goal-scorer with 20 goals in that 2003/04 Primeira Liga season, but McCarthy also played a major role in helping Jose Mourinho walk away with his first Uefa Champions League title as head coach in that 3-0 victory over Monaco in Germany.
Zungu foresees himself walking in the footsteps of the Bafana Bafana legend in Europe, too.
What McCarthy achieved during his playing days in Portugal not only serves as a motivation for South Africa’s central midfielder, but it also pushes him to continue fighting to become a better player.
And that’s why Zungu is not surprised that his first season in Portugal has prompted all sorts of talk about him joining sides like Southampton, Sheffield Wednesday, Benfica or FC Porto.
It’s something he had hoped to achieve when he left South Africa for Europe two seasons ago.
“It’s very humbling to see so many teams interested in my services,” said Zungu, who was invited to give a motivational talk to this year’s Nike Academy players in Pimville, Soweto earlier this week.
“I’m very grateful to my team because they gave me the opportunity to play and were very patient with me when I first arrived.
“(But) to add to that, Guimarães is a selling club. They develop players and sell them (to other teams) later on. That’s what they do.
“That’s one of the reasons why I decided to join them. My only hope and prayer is that they (his current team) forgive me should a better transfer offer arise, which might lead to me leaving the team because that’s just how football is. And I say this because people love me there. They appreciate my talent.
“I look up to a guy like Benni,” Zungu adds. “That guy is very big there. People know him to this very day. They are always asking me about him. I want to follow into his footsteps and hopefully achieve more (than he did). I believe it’s possible.
“I get goosebumps when I think about it. Playing in the Champions League is still a dream for me. I want to play there, too.”
Zungu will get a taste of European continental football next season after helping his side to a fourth-place finish in the Primeira Liga standings with 62 points this past season.
But the possibility of him playing in his first Uefa Europa League will all depend on him deciding against the temptation of joining Southampton, who finished out of the Uefa spots going into the 2017/18 English Premier League season.
Both Benfica and Porto, though, would be considered as one of his preferred moves as both will be participating in next year’s Uefa Champions League, after finishing first and second respectively in their league campaign.
Meanwhile, the Bafana international says he’s very grateful to his former coach, Pitso Mosimane, who converted him from a No10 to a central midfield role, as it is in this position where he is having the most impact in the game.
“Portuguese football is way different to the PSL,” Zungu said. “They give the right passes there. They are quick and much sharper on and off the ball.
“There’s just quality everywhere. You get to play against top sides such as Benfica. We got beaten 5-0 by them,” Zungu adds, now shaking his head in disbelief.
“It was tough. About 70 000 spectators came out to watch the match. I remember signalling to the coach that I wanted to be substituted. I told him I had a hamstring problem. He told me to stay there and handle the heat and the humiliation that came with it. The scoreline was 3-0 by then.
“They scored four in the first period alone. But then again, we only have ourselves to blame. We didn’t switch on.
“Credit must go to coach Pitso because it was right after I moved to that position, that I began getting regular Bafana Bafana call-ups and ultimately being scouted by European teams.
“And so yes, he deserves all the credit (when it comes to that).”