BACK IN ACTION: Bidvest WitsPhakamani Mahlambi of scored on his return to the team following a ten-month injury lay-off. Photo: BackpagePix
“A  lot has chan-ged,” Phakamani Mahlambi said as he opened up about the 10 months he spent on the sidelines after sustaining a career-threatening injury in February earlier this year.

The 19-year-old spoke in a matter-of-fact manner but his tone gave away the hurt and pain he endured in the months he spent recovering from his torn medial collateral ligament on his knee (MCL) and his anterior collateral ligament (ACL).

He missed the Rio Olympics and the final stretch of the Absa Premiership race because of that injury.

Without Mahlambi, the national Under-23 team returned from Brazil winless and Bidvest Wits finished 14 points behind Absa Premiership champions Mamelodi Sundowns.

The lad from Louwsburg, in northern KwaZulu-Natal, quickly got back into the swing of things on his return to action this weekend. He scored a brace in the 3-1 win over Free State Stars to help Wits end a four-match winless streak.

“I am not the same Phakamani that I was before,” Mahlambi said. “A lot has changed. I am stronger mentally now. These last 10 months were tough, emotionally, physically and mentally. I had to train twice and even three times a day to be ready physically. The hardest part was preparing myself mentally. You have to recover mentally first before you recover physically so that you can play without fear of being injured again.”

Brother's sacrifice

A few strands of a beard under Mahlambi’s chin is the only physical change that he returned with. The speed that made him shoot to stardom is still there. It’s thanks to a sacrifice from his older brother, Mthobisi, who was on the verge of signing a professional contract when he was put in an awkward position of choosing between his career and that of his brother.

Phakamani needed a hamstring to repair his knee ligament. There were three options. The first was to use Phakamani’s hamstring but that would have slowed him down, taking away the young star’s key arsenal. The second was to get it from his father Zachariah - Phakamani’s first coach at amateur side Louwsburg Aces, a club that Mahlambi senior also owned.

The third choice put Phakamani and his parents in a tight spot.

“Everyone was afraid to approach me because I am also a soccer player,” Mthobisi said. “I was at Wits as a trialist that time. I was working hard to get a contract. My parents were afraid to ask me because of that. Even my manager (Glyn Binkin) was afraid. Looking at where my career was at that time, they all thought I would refuse. Phakamani eventually came to me and asked me himself. Even though I was about to sign a professional contract, I agreed. It would have been a great moment for me (to turn professional).”

Mthobisi, now a rightback for amateur side Pimville Youngsters from Soweto, sacrificed his career for that of his brother.

His selfless effort made him the leading actor in Phakamani’s return. Phakamani and the medical staff, led by Dr Michael Barrow, who performed the operation, were relegated to the role of supporting actors because all wouldn’t have been possible without Mthobisi.

“Those months were also hard on me because I was also recovering,” Mthobisi said. “They took it (the hamstring) on my left side. It was hard to balance at first but it eventually improved.

“Now I am just cool. I am a normal guy like everyone else, even though I sometimes feel the pain when it’s cold.”

Phakamani dedicated his performance against Ea Lla Koto to Mthobisi and even gave him his Man of the Match award .

“I don’t remember much of the moment he agreed to give me his hamstring because I was confused at that time,” Phakamani said. “The original plan was to take my father’s hamstring. Mthobisi showed up and said he will give it to me. His sacrifice meant a great deal.

“Everything I will do is dedicated to him because I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.”

Carefree Mthobisi doesn’t see the big deal in his sacrifice.

“I told myself that even if I have to quit my career for his, it would be worth it,” Mthobisi said. “He is the bread winner at home. I didn’t care about my career at that point. I told myself that if it doesn’t work out I will just further my studies at university. I was only thinking about Phakamani when

“I made that decision. Even though he is younger than me, he has always paved the way for me. What he has done for my family and my community is a great thing. I believe that he won’t end here. He’ll end up somewhere in Europe and when he does that, he’ll take a part of me with him. We would both have made it.”