Bongani Sam’s face is expressionless as he talks about a season that’s been a roller-coaster ride. Photo: BackpagePix
Bongani Sam’s face is expressionless as he talks about a season that’s been a roller-coaster ride on steroids - from the highs of making his debut in the PSL to the lows of Bloemfontein Celtic’s financial troubles and ending the campaign with a senior national team call-up.

Sam, pictured, doesn’t show much emotion as he talks about the good and the bad. It’s a skill he learned early, not getting carried away by success and not being fazed by difficulties. If it wasn’t for this kill, he wouldn’t be the footballer he is today. He wouldn’t even be a footballer because his career was derailed when he was on the verge of making a breakthrough.

“I was staying with my grandmother in Port Elizabeth when I was playing for Bay United (who sold their status to Polokwane City),” Sam said.

“When she died, I had to go and stay with my aunt in Motherwell which meant that I had to leave the team. I joined another team there called Lion City. That’s when I grew up. I played in the Castle League, which was very tough. I then went to the Ke Yona team search where I was placed at Celtic.”

It took just three days for Sam to impress at Phunya Sele Sele and earn a professional contract. But that contract came with a lot of trouble instead of the good fortune he expected. Sam was loaned to Highlands Park in the National First Division and contributed to their promotion for the 2018/19 Premiership season.

Celtic recalled him, only to bring him into a troublesome environment. Steve Komphela protected the players from the office shenanigans but also blew the lid on how bad things were with a stinging resignation letter that slammed Celtic’s professionalism - revealing that things were so bad that he paid from his own pocket to ensure grass was cut on their training field.

Players went on strike several times due to non-payment of salaries and sign-on fees. At one point they even went on strike in protest of the office staff not being paid.

Despite that, they finished in a respectable eighth place. Sam was among the standout players, earning a call-up to the under-23 national team that’s looking to go to the Olympics.

“I grew up in an environment like that. I had to adapt to survive. I played in the Vodacom League and that’s tough. It’s hard to survive. I was among the youngest in the team and I was facing challenges like this one. So to me it was like I am replaying the tape of when I was growing up.”

Celtic’s troubles are at the back of Sam’s minds as a makeshift Bafana Bafana team prepare to take on Botswana this afternoon at Princess Magogo Stadium in the quarter-finals of the Cosafa Cup.

The SA Football Association have decided to use this tournament as preparation for the under-23s who will take on Zimbabwe in September for a place in the Africa Under-23 Cup of Nations in Egypt. Three Olympics slots will be up for grabs for the eight nations.

Becoming an Olympian would wash away all the trouble the 21-year-old Sam has faced in his young career.

“It’s a dream come true to be here and representing the country because I grew up craving for this opportunity,” Sam said. “The hard work I put in was for me to one day realise this opportunity. Now that I am rewarded with this opportunity, I will grab it with both hands.”

Sunday Independent