Phokeng – Benson Mhlongo endured a sleepless night on Tuesday.
“I could not sleep, my bra. The things that are happening in our football pain me.”
It’s Wednesday morning and we’re at the parking lot of the Bafokeng Sports Complex in Phokeng. Mhlongo has just arrived for training, among the first to do so despite his having been the last to leave the previous evening.
We’d spent about two and a half hours at the club house discussing all matters football – including his illustrious career, the impact his late father (former Mango Groove guitarist George Lewis) and Gorah Ibrahim had on him – before he left for home after 8.30pm.
Mhlongo had lamented the state of the local game, voicing his frustration at the dishonesty that he believes is so rife in football. And the developments of the previous day had clearly perturbed him. As he leaned over my car window, a look of worry enveloped his face – the smile with which he’d earlier greeted some of his teammates having made way for a deep frown.
“How can we allow our national team to be treated the way it is?” he asks, arousing my curiosity. “Why is it that some players can just come and go from the squad as they please? We’re just not fair. It clearly looks like you must be a name or know somebody to be in the national team, because it is definitely not about how you perform.”
Gordon Igesund had announced the national team on Tuesday and some inclusions served to confirm the Platinum Stars defender’s assertion that it is not what you know but rather who you know that will ensure your success in the local game.
“What criteria are we using to select squads? There are just no rules and this is the reason some players earn 50 caps so easily, because they are connected. I can tell you now that if a former coach of mine who liked me gets the national team job, I’d be in the squad no matter my form.”
Mhlongo is particularly surprised by the inclusion of Delron Buckley and Benni McCarthy in the squad.
“Suddenly Delron is fit to play for the national team! Yet when we used to be in the squad, he was almost always injured except for when we were playing either in Europe or for the Nations Cup. And then you have players resigning from the squad and then returning almost at will. What message are we sending to the younger players aspiring to play for the squad?”
It has not escaped Mhlongo’s attention that the trend seems to generally involve coloured players. “I cannot help but think it is a racial thing. And you guys in the media contribute a lot to this,” he says, keeping eye contact for a moment longer as if to let me get his point. “When some players like Benni returned from Europe you all went on and wrote about how they should be included in the squad to lend their experience. But the likes of Siyabonga Nomvethe and Sibusiso Zuma, players who never turned their back on the squad, came back they were described as being old and coming back to retire. Why’s that?”
I have no answers. Not that he needed any. “The biggest problem is that a lot of people are not involved in the game because they love it. People want to be stars or to make money, that’s it. And just about everyone is playing along. The bosses allow coaches and agents to do as they please because they (the bosses) are just happy to get the money. They don’t seem to care about what’s happening to the game or even us as players.”
He is different, he says.
“I play because I love it. I’ve never wanted to be a star. To me, I’ll become a star when I’ve helped see the system being right and the good of football being the focus of everyone. I cannot understand why the media always goes out of their way to praise our opponents instead of us. It is you guys who are making our players feel inferior and want to change their way of playing. When we were to play Brazil recently, all we read about and heard on the radio was how good Brazil are, nothing about our players. How are we supposed to believe in ourselves when our own people trample on us and uplift others?”
Mhlongo shares an experience from his time with Bafana that made him realise we’re going about things the wrong way. “When we went to play Scotland, their newspapers were praising them, talking of how good they were. But on match-day we discovered they were actually very average. But their countrymen believed in them, and in turn they, too, believed in themselves.”
A pretty slow player he could easily have been destroyed by some of his coaches, he says.
“They always complained about my pace and tried to change me. But I had made it to the professional ranks and got signed by clubs without pace so I never listened to them. I was very fortunate to be trained by Gorah Ibrahim (former Dynamos and Orlando Pirates defender) when I was young.
“He taught me to stick to my game no matter what. I play the way I do and if a coach does not like it, he must not sign me or use me, period. Many careers have been destroyed because players tried to please coaches and did things they just were not comfortable with. That’s what pains me about this game.”
Mhlongo is humane, you see.
“I like to add value to people’s lives. I love to help and there are a lot of players that I’ve helped out, even financially. Everywhere I’ve played, I’ve gone out of my way to help players stand up for themselves. But too often those players get lied to and are told I am a bad influence and some of them have believed that. It is the nature of this game, lies and more lies – by just about everyone. When you speak the truth, you’re labelled a know-it-all. But that doesn’t bother me, I’m not in this game to please anyone, I just love playing – not to be a star, but to show the kids who look up to me that it is possible to make a success of your chosen career.”
And success is not fame as many seem to think, he says.
“My father was very famous when he still played with Mango Groove. He was a celebrity. People loved him and he always hosted and entertained. But when he was sick he was alone (just with us) and when he died he had nothing. That’s the problem with being a star sometimes. And in football I’ve seen it happen to many players. And I worry because my son who is 11 says he wants to play football. I obviously can’t stop him if that’s his dream, but I hope he heeds my advice because it can be bad out there. I’ve already advised many but sometimes it has been in vain.”
Such a nature, he says, was created at an early age through his upbringing. “I come from a very loving family. My parents used to bring in children from all over into our home. My mother would never pass by a hungry child in the street, and my father loved people. I learnt that umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu from my parents.”
And being a Christian, he knows to use his God-given talent well: “Jesus instructs us to ‘be like me and love people’. He is the one who gave me what I have. And when I was injured and many thought I’d never play again, I came back only by His grace. So I know that I have to go out there and reveal Christ to people. And showing them love is the best way to do so.”
While out injured, Mhlongo was involved in a nasty gun incident that no doubt had many see him as some thug of sorts. He was arrested with others for illegal possession of a gun which was found in his car.
“That was a blessing in disguise,” he says of the incident. “I am always trying to teach young players about the ways of life and it is true that experience is the best teacher. Being in that situation has given me ammunition to be able to tell others about the dangers of mixing with the wrong crowd. When I tell someone to choose their friends carefully, I will be able to back it up. Although in my case I was with family,” he laughs before adding: “These days I only drive around with my family.” Yet such is his helpful nature, that late on Tuesday when he left the Sports Complex he gladly accepted to offer one of the team’s helpers a lift only to get home and stay awake pondering the lies in our game. – The Star