The world at his feet

2011-01-05 00:00

ANY central defender transferring from South Africa’s Premier Soccer League to the English Premiership will naturally draw comparisons to Lucas Radebe.

After a 2010 that was the biggest year for South African football, Bafana Bafana defender Bongani­ Khumalo flew to London this week to join Tottenham Hotspur, capping what has certainly also been the most important year in the career of the big, intelligent centre-back.

While Radebe was 24 when he joined Leeds United from Kaizer Chiefs in 1994, Khumalo at 23 has a year’s step on his illustrious predecessor to make an impact in the Premiership.

Like “Rhoo”, Khumalo is joining a club that, under manager Harry Redknapp, is going places. Spurs are campaigning in the Champions League this season for the first time and are doing very well.

They have beaten holders Inter Milan 3-1 at home and swamped Twente Enschede 4-1 at White Hart Lane, matches in which Welsh left midfielder Gareth Bale caught the eye as potentially one of Europe’s most exciting young players. The London club have been drawn with AC Milan in the next round.

Khumalo might find himself a change-room team-mate of the world’s most famous player for the next two months should the proposed loan deal for David Beckham go through with the LA Galaxy.

He might also find himself a team-mate of Bafana­’s other star performer of 2010, Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar, whose desire to end his career at a club where he stands a chance of playing in the Champions League has seen him linked to Spurs.

Pienaar would add greatly to a quality midfield and attack that already includes Rafael van der Vaart, Luka Modric, Aaron Lennon, Jermaine Defoe, Roman Pavyluchenko and Peter Crouch.

Spurs are fourth in the Premiership, five points adrift of leaders Manchester United.

Unlike Radebe, who sat in the cold for months at Leeds before painstakingly earning himself a place in the starting line-up over even more months, Khumalo might see first team action at Spurs as soon as this weekend in the FA Cup London derby against Charlton Athletic­. Redknapp has a central defensive injury list as long as his arm and reports are that if Spurs’s new South African makes the grade in training he will play on Sunday.

Ironically it has not been Khumalo’s excellent reading of the game, athleticism and good turn of pace, his ability to get forward and score from set pieces (as he did against France in the World Cup in June), his R17 million price tag, or chances of adapting to the pace of Premiership football that have been the talking points ahead of his arrival in London.

In a casual comment by Redknapp, the manager appeared to be trying to pay his new defender a compliment by saying: “He’s got potential and we’ve got a tie-up with the club SuperSport so we’ve taken him on.

“It will be a great chance for the kid. He’s a great lad. He comes from a poor background and he’s desperate for a chance and we’re going to give him a chance.”

The English press latched onto the poor background aspect and rumours have flown that, similar to Arsenal’s Emmanuel Adebayor, who has 13 siblings, Khumalo comes from a family of seven brothers and seven sisters.

This has left Khumalo, born in Swaziland but only because his South African mother had a job there, fending off the “impoverished African” stereotype, and pointing out that, if anything, he is middle class.

“I’m an only child,” explained the defender, who grew up in Pretoria. “To say I have 14 siblings is a load of rubbish, so I don’t know where they got all that from.

“It’s always been only me and I’ll be going to London on my own. My parents were academics. They’ve both passed away now, but my dad was a lecturer who started the Swati African language department at the University of South Africa and my mother was a teacher.”

Khumalo added: “I was studying for a degree at Pretoria University. It’s been on hold.

“If I can take a couple of modules to keep it going then I’ll be happy, but it has been on hold for way too long and I need to get back to it.”

It is media savvy Khumalo’s educated eloquence­ that has seen him touted as the potential successor to current Bafana captain Aaron Mokoena, for whom public speaking was a weak point.

It will be on the field, though, that the young defender will need to do his talking if he is to make it in the Premiership.

Having played a key role at the heart of the defence in SuperSport United’s three successive PSL championships, Khumalo has established a winning mentality under ultra-competitive coach Gavin Hunt.

Asked to comment on the search for his successor at SuperSport, Khumalo said: “It has to be a player with the right frame of mind and attitude. I mean when I first came here, that’s what I was told and that’s what I worked on. And I was fortunate to win with that mentality.”

Ironically, Khumalo almost did not play the three World Cup Group A games for Bafana in June that attracted so much attention in Europe. He was behind SuperSport­ team-mate and 2010 PSL player of the season Morgan Gould in the pecking order to partner Mokoena in defence.

An injury to Gould opened the way for Khumalo and he grabbed his chance with storming performances in the opening draw against Mexico and 2-1 defeat of France.

The South African midfield left their defence exposed in the 3-0 defeat against Uruguay. But Khumalo did enough at the highest level to suggest that he has what it takes to compete in the Premiership and Champions League and is the player most likely to lead a rising Bafana generation into a new decade.

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