Lebogang Phiri is aiming to break into the Bafana starting XI. Photo: Sydney Mahlangu, BackpagePix

UYO, Nigeria – Any South African player who moves to Denmark faces the inevitable challenge of having to prove they are as good as – if not better than – Sibusiso Zuma, who still today is held in high esteem as an FC Copenhagen legend.

In 2006, a year after the former Bafana Bafana striker ended his five-year spell with the Danish giants, Zuma was voted No 1 by the fans for the player with the greatest profile to have donned their beloved jersey.

Seven years later, young Lebogang Phiri signed for Brondby IF, and even though he is a midfielder, it was obvious he would remind his rivals of his compatriot.

“They still chant his name,” said Phiri, although he will not be hearing Zuma’s name being sung there now, having agreed a four-year contract with French Ligue 1 side Guingamp from the upcoming season.

“I did enough to get a really good name in the country. Zuma was a special player for Copenhagen at the time, and wherever I go, they still ask me about him and how he’s doing, as if we know each other. I think I really did well in Denmark as a player.

“As you’ve seen on YouTube, there was an emotional goodbye and I was well honoured by the club and supporters. I did my utmost best. I was a young player, still am.

“But I think I did a lot to win people over and their hearts. The club obviously didn’t want me to leave, especially in that manner. But I have to secure my future.”

Lebogang Phiri in action for Brondby in a Europa League qualifier against Hertha Berlin. Photo: Soeren Stache, EPA

Phiri, born in the Alexandra township 22 years ago and growing up right under the nose of former South African international Maimane Phiri, a close friend to his father, really did get stuck in at Brondby after joining without ever kicking a ball in the Premier Soccer League despite being a product of Bidvest Wits.

He broke into the first team at 18 and only three months after signing a youth contract.

“He had a good and successful career,” young Phiri said of Maimane, who surprisingly only managed 13 appearances for Bafana and spent six years playing in the Turkish Super League.

“My ambition to play abroad also comes from what he achieved. He has done so much for Alexandra as well, which is a big influence on us as players.”

It hasn’t always been easy for Phiri at Brondby, though.

Last year the club denied him an opportunity to represent Team South Africa at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, arguing that he’d miss their opening four league matches in a new season as well as one Europa League tie, and they simply could not afford that.

“No. I never understood their reasoning,” explained Phiri.

“I was really angry with them, till today. I felt like I needed that chance because it is one that comes once in a lifetime, and you never know when we can qualify for the Olympics again and if I will even make it an as over-aged player.

“This was my chance and my time. They neglected me the chance of going there.

“So it was really tough for me. I had a bad spell with the club because we went back and forth. They tried showing me what the reasons were, but I still didn’t take them because I felt for me as a player, to grow my career to the next level, I needed that chance.

Lebogang Phiri (left) holds the Cosafa Cup with teammate Thembinkosi Lorch. Photo: Muzi Ntombela, BackpagePix

“It would have also helped the club as well in terms of future sales. I ended up having a great season, but I’d lost it a bit because of all that happened.”

Phiri’s other target is to cement his place in the Bafana team following his late inclusion in the 25-man squad in Uyo to face Nigeria tonight (6pm kickoff) in their opening 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier.

He replaced the injured Kamohelo Mokotjo, but isn’t bothered by being picked because of a forced withdrawal. “I don’t see myself as a replacement,” he said.

“I am here to work and fight for the country not myself. Players get injured and that happens at club level and when you are called on, you are not a replacement but someone who is there to do the job.

“As young as I am, I am here to learn from the older and more experienced guys in terms of international football.

“It’s an honour to come to the national team. I need to push myself for future reference, to get more call-ups as I need that in my career.”

Saturday Star

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