Daylon Claasen could have easily been one of the forgotten men in South Africa football, but a move back home to Bidvest Wits two months ago seems to have saved his international career after he was last week recalled to the Bafana Bafana squad.
He spent close to a decade in Europe - playing for four different clubs, proof that perhaps he never quite settled, although he says his time in Belgium with Lierse was probably his highlight abroad.
“I don’t think you can go overseas prepared,” Claasen explains.
“It’s a different lifestyle, culture and everything is just different from what you are used to. But I do think you can grow into it. That’s what I did because I remember in my first year (after joining Ajax Amsterdam in Holland) I was really homesick. I was there all alone after being at home with my family. I adapted and did what I had to do. People there are obviously different, and they are too serious. Maybe they have their own way of having fun.”
For three years at Belgium, where there was a large contingent of South African players, Claasen had the time of his life. He made his Bafana debut the same year he signed for the Lierse.
“I just felt at home because Lance Davids was there, Siboniso Gaxa was also playing there and Anele (Ngcongca) was also playing for Genk in Belgium. I don’t know, but I think it was the sense of being around fellow South Africans. I was playing with two of my countrymen in the same team, and I think that put me at ease. The more comfortable you feel, the more you can express yourself.”
Claasen doesn’t view a return to the PSL as a step back in his career. He didn’t say it, but it’s unlikely he would have been considered for Bafana’s 2018 World Cup qualifier against Cape Verde in Praia on Friday and the home leg in Durban four days later if he wasn't back home. In fact, being in the wilderness for so long, he might not have come anywhere close to the national team had he stayed in Germany.
“I thought maybe it was a sign to come back when a team I was going to join (Würzburger Kickers) experienced a crazy string of poor results and were relegated (to the third tier in Germany),” Claasen says of his decision to join league champions Wits.
“I had signed a pre-contract with them in January and was going to join at the end of the season (after his deal with 1860 Munich expired) but they lost 10 of their last 16 games and went down. That was unfortunate, but I thought maybe it’s a sign.”
At 27, a man who’s also had a stint in Poland with Lech Poznan, has only made 11 appearances for Bafana, which comes as a surprise when you consider he’s always been viewed as part of the big picture for the national team. Claasen has over the years been compared with one of the country’s best ever exports in Steven Pienaar, who he now shares a dressing room with after the former Borussia Dortmund, Everton and Sunderland midfielder joined Wits as a free agent at the same time as Claasen to wind down his career.
“He has always been a role model of mine,” Claasen says of Pienaar, who is eight years his senior. “I know him from our short time at Ajax Cape Town, and I have always admired the way his career went, what he has achieved, and I am happy to now be playing with him. I am glad that he gets to share this with me while we are both still playing.”
On his Bafana return, he says: “I am honoured. I didn’t expect it, but it is something I always work towards.”