JOHANNESBURG - Being handed the number 10 jersey on your international debut must be overwhelming. It justifies your talent, but equally puts you under pressure to deliver. After all, this number is special in football, reserved for players with almost supernatural skills.
But Sphelele Mkhulise concedes that as soon as he got over the shock of being handed Bafana Bafana’s No. 10 jersey ahead of his international debut against Uganda in a friendly at Orlando Stadium, Soweto, last month, he took the field in his usual way.
“The kit manager in the dressing room told me I’d be wearing No.10. And I was like, ‘how come? It’s still my debut’,” Mkhulise told Independent Media yesterday. “But when I went to the pitch, I didn’t think a lot about it. I just wanted to play well that day.”
That’s what Mkhulise did that night. He bossed all the movements in the engine room, particularly going forward as Bafana went defeated the Cranes 3-2. Bafana’s friendly against Uganda was the first match in the era of coach Hugo Broos.
That performance against Uganda earned Mkhulise a successive Bafana call-up, for the ongoing Cosafa Cup in Gqeberha. Mkhulise, wearing the No. 10 jersey, continued to churn out a clinical performance for South Africa as they beat Botswana 1-0 in the opener.
“I don’t think I played badly (in my first two Bafana matches). I am happy that we won and I played the entire game in both matches. I think I did well, even though there’s a lot to improve. But I think the more I play, that’s when I’ll improve,” Mkhulise explained.
Mkhulise’s chances of becoming a Bafana regular, even during major tournaments, will depend on his consistent performances. Broos is rebuilding the national team, aiming to make it a powerhouse on the continent again, following recent misfortunes.
South Africa missed out on the Africa Cup of Nations next year after finishing third in the qualifiers.
That’s why they can’t afford to miss out on a ticket to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. They’ll meet neighbours Zimbabwe, Ghana and Ethiopia in the qualifiers.
By the time the qualifiers get under way in September, Broos is expected to have something to report about in his restructuring process, despite currently working remotely from home in Belgium where he received his second jab of the Covid-19 vaccine.
Mkhulise will be hoping to make the cut in the final Bafana squad that will play the opening round of World Cup qualifiers against Zimbabwe and Ghana. He shouldn’t need more motivation to achieve that feat. After all, he’s embraced hard work at Mamelodi Sundowns.
“I have to work hard to be in the starting line-up,” the Brazilians’ development graduate said. “There are too many good players that can deliver at Sundowns. I need to work hard and remain focused. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to play and do well for the team.”
Mkhulise hasn’t had to look far for motivation to realise that hard work pays off.
Teammates Themba Zwane and Peter Shalulile were crowned the league’s Footballers of the Season in the past two years after guiding the Tshwane giants to back-to-back titles.
Mkhulise wants to follow in the footsteps of Percy Tau, a fellow development graduate who’s currently the golden boy of South African football.
The first step will be to help Bafana beat Eswatini this afternoon in the second round of matches in Group A of the Cosafa Cup.