JOHANNESBURG – “I am not bitter about it, I am actually proud of the part I played,” Siyabonga Nhlapo says about being there – but not really there – when Bidvest Wits made history last season.
Nhlapo wasn’t at FNB Stadium to see Thulani Hlatshwayo become the club’s first captain to lift the Absa Premiership trophy on May 27, despite still being on the Clever Boys’ books.
While Wits were celebrating, a dejected Nhlapo was at Makhulong Stadium trying to console Highlands Park’s players after they were relegated to the First Division after just one season in top-flight football.
Nhlapo didn’t go to the First Division with the Lions of the North, but returned to Wits from his loan stint to be a part of their league celebrations.
Shortly after that, he was deemed surplus to their needs, which paved the way for him to join SuperSport United.
“I celebrated that title with Wits because I was a part of the process that led to them being champions,” Nhlapo said.
“I am not just talking about spending the first half of the season with them, but I talk about being a part of the side that changed the culture at Wits.
“I was there when we laid the foundation for winning that league by finishing third, third and second before we were crowned champions.”
Nhlapo continued, “I arrived at Wits at the same time as coach Gavin Hunt. He took my game to another level. I became part of the Bafana Bafana set-up and went to the (2015) Africa Cup of Nations.
“Why would I be bitter about such a period? It was always about the collective. There was a mutual understanding that I had to move on.
“I don’t blame anyone about that because the moment you start blaming other people about what’s going on in your life, you forget to hold yourself accountable.”
Nhlapo speaks about his failure and success with the same enthusiasm. He refuses to be held back by his failure and he doesn’t let success go to his head.
It’s an intricate balancing act that requires a steady head. That skill helped him get over being released by Wits after a disappointing last season, to quickly settle at Matsatsantsa a Pitori and contribute to their march to the final of the Caf Confederation Cup.
The versatile 28-year-old was solid and calm in defence in a hostile environment in Rades against Tunisian side Club Africain in the second leg of the semi-final. SuperSport strolled to a 3-1 win to set up a meeting with TP Mazembe in the final. Matsatsantsa will experience an even tougher atmosphere in Lubumbashi on Sunday in the first leg against the reigning Confederation Cup champions.
“They are a formidable team, one of the best in the continent, but we don’t fear them,” Nhlapo said.
“They aren’t as strong as they used to be. They don’t bully their opponents like they used to do.
“I saw how they struggled away (against FUS Rabat of Morocco), but their pedigree in these competitions pushed took them to the final. The team did well against them in the group stage, so we know what to expect.”
SuperSport’s preparation for the biggest game in the club’s history has been less than ideal.
Five of their players – captain Dean Furman, Clayton Daniels, Bradley Grobler, Ronwen Williams and Morgan Gould, who is suspended for the first leg – are in Dakar to play a dead-rubber for Bafana Bafana tonight against Senegal, who have already qualified for the World Cup.
This will give coach Eric Tinkler limited time to work with them before the final.
But the five players’ experience, the team’s drive to make history, and the standing ovation they received in their last match in Lubumbashi counts in SuperSport’s favour.
“The timing of my move to join SuperSport United was brilliant,” Nhlapo said. “I am on the verge of making history with them in a short space of time. I had to step up to fit in here.
“I was moved by how quickly the club moved to register me for this competition since I joined them in the middle of it.
“I want to repay that faith by helping them become African champions.”