When Bongani Khumalo was just 14 years old, a visit to the Estadio Morumbi in Sao Paulo helped to “ignite” a desire to play professional football.
In a piece of perfect symmetry, on Friday, Khumalo’s career hit new heights at the very same venue, as the 25-year-old central defender led Bafana for the first time in their heroic 1-0 defeat at the hands of Brazil.
Bafana were expected to receive a heavy beating at the hands of the Selecao, in Gordon Igesund’s first game in charge, with a squad deprived of several key names. Instead, they put up a brave, committed performance that won the hearts of the Sao Paulo fans, who gave them an ovation as they left the field.
Brazil, by contrast, were booed for much of a game that perhaps had bad omens for them from the off, the kickoff delayed when they were forced to change from yellow into blue, because of a clash with the yellow in Bafana’s kit.
“Right now it’s still very fresh,” said Khumalo afterwards, whose late arrival in Brazil meant he only found out he was captain in the team meeting at the hotel on the day of the game.
“But I think this is one game I will look back on no matter where my career goes from here. I came to Brazil before, when I was 14, and I came to see this stadium as a tourist. We weren’t allowed on the grass.
“Now to come back and be fortunate enough to play as a captain against such a massive nation … I thank God for the opportunity. It’s a privilege to have been part of this moment, and I am grateful to the coaches for showing confidence in my ability.”
Khumalo visited Brazil when he was 14, playing as a youngster with Arcadia Shepherds in Pretoria.
“It was a tour targeted at schoolboy players,” he says.
“It was an incredible tour as it ignited a dream, and I am fortunate today to have lived it.”
It was always going to take a strong defensive display from Bafana to challenge Brazil in their own backyard, and Igesund’s men got stuck into their opponents from the start, making their presence known with some fierce, but fair tackling.
“You can see it was a fight, we turned it into a fight,” said Khumalo.
“There was good character and team spirit. Everyone was barking orders at the next person. Just to be a part of that, I think it’s the first time in the national team I’ve seen that commitment. It was unbelievable.
“We always communicate, but today we were bouncing off each other even more. We were working for each other, which is always a great thing for a team, and hopefully we can continue with this, go forward, and not look back.”
As ineffective as Brazil were, they did eventually find a winner, a superb left foot shot from substitute Hulk.
“It was a quality finish, you can’t fault anyone for that,” added Khumalo.
Even going forward, Bafana were, at times, pretty cohesive, despite losing both Dino Ndlovu and Benni McCarthy to injury in the first half. Bernard Parker did superbly after coming on as a substitute and Bafana might even have snatched the game early in the second half.
“If you think about it the coach has had three days with the team, I have come in (Khumalo only arrived on Wednesday afternoon) and had about half a training session,” said Khumalo.
“And we’ve gone in and put in a performance. We have done well. I can’t remember a game where two centre forwards have come off in such a short space of time. I thought Dino was doing well against (David) Luiz, he was giving him problems; it’s unfortunate he came off with a bad injury.
“We really gave it a go, amd didn’t hold back. In the first half for periods we had to park the bus, but in the second half we really took the game to them. It showed good character from all the players involved. It’s important we don’t get too carried away, we really need to push on from here.”
For Bafana right now, it is all about preparing for the 2013 African Nations Cup finals on home turf in January, their next friendly coming on Tuesday against Mozambique in Nelspruit. Crystal Palace midfieldeer Kagiso Dikgacoi has returned to his club, but the rest of the squad, with the exception of the injured McCarthy and Ndlovu, travelled to Nelspruit on Sunday. – The Star