Rags to riches for Melmoth lad

2008-05-30 00:00

It took 30 minutes of a friendly match against Orlando Pirates for Maritzburg City’s young striker, Siphelele Mthembu, to raise the eyebrows and pique the interest of the Soweto giants.

Vodacom League team City were playing the Buccaneers at King’s Park in Durban at the end of this season, and City coach Reggie Shelembe had decided to keep his talented young striker on the bench, not wanting to put too much pressure on him. With 30 minutes to go, Mthembu was introduced and set up a goal and scored two himself, in a 3-2 upset victory.

With performances like that, it is no wonder Pirates and Soweto rivals Kaizer Chiefs have been fighting over Mthembu’s signature for the past few months.

At the moment, Chiefs appear to have the inside lane, and the 20-year-old youngster from Melmoth in Zululand stands on the brink of a life-changing move to one of Africa’s biggest clubs, the Premier Soccer League, and the big city life of Gauteng.

The new life he will embark on at Chiefs’ village at Naturena, near FNB Stadium on the oustkirts of Soweto, would complete a rags-to-riches tale film-makers dream of.

Growing up in poor, rural Melmoth, Mthembu’s unemployed parents did not have the funds to support his education, a situation made worse when his father died last year. Tragically, four of his eight siblings have also died in recent years.

“My parents did not have jobs to support me and send me to school. So from 13 or 14, I decided to work on my talent. I started running in the streets, and people said to me: ‘you, are mad, how can you run when it’s raining’,” Mthembu says.

“I started playing in a local league and all my team-mates were drinking alcohol. I made a decision that if everyone else was drinking, and I was the only one who wasn’t, then I would get ahead.

“I decided I needed a serious team and luckily Mr Shelembe spotted me and brought me to his school, and Maritzburg City bought me clothes, and I was put into the development system.”

At 15, Mthembu was enrolled at KwaPata Secondary School in Imbali, where coach Shelembe is a teacher, and joined the City under-17s. However, it was only after Shelembe returned to City, after a two-year stint coaching AmaZulu, that a vital change from midfield to striker was made that changed Mthembu’s career.

Shelembe says: “When I came back I said to Siphelele, ‘Look, boy, maybe I can help you uplift your family. The top teams are all looking for strikers, so I’m going to help you become one’. And since then, he has been scoring two or three goals a game.”

Shelembe says the interest shown by Chiefs and Pirates is not surprising, as Mthembu, who has scored more than a goal a game for City in the Vodacom this season, has all the attributes of a top striker.

“Firstly, it is because of his frame — he is strong, muscular and quick, so he has got everything, even though there is a lot he still needs to learn to cope at the highest level.

“He’s got the ability to play at the top level — he just needs to be helped. I’m not saying he is raw — he is far better than some of the so-called strikers playing in the PSL. But he can still learn much more.”

Another prominent Pietermaritzburg coach, Thabo Dladla, was the assistant to Shelembe at AmaZulu, where he worked with Mthembu briefly when the striker trained with the Durban team two years ago.

He sounds a word of caution about the youngster’s chances at Chiefs, where even international strikers have crumbled under the pressure.

“He is potentially a good player,” Dladla says. “I think Chiefs and Pirates are interested in him because he has a natural ability to score, and is a very strong boy. And the other thing is his discipline — it is very hard to find a boy in his age group who does not drink or smoke, and works so hard.

“He has a lot of potential, but I am not sure if he can just go in at a big club and make an immediate impact. It depends on the individual. I think any club who signs him will get their value from him.”

Apart from the friendly against Pirates, Mthembu has also trained with Chiefs at various times in the past year, and scored a goal in a friendly against Santos.

The interest shown in him by the country’s two biggest clubs has resulted in his life being quite hectic over the past few months, using three different cellphones and living in three different places to avoid unknown characters offering to be his agent or manager.

But, if he moves to Chiefs, things are just going to get crazier. Mthembu says he is aware of the huge step he is taking from the Vodacom League to the country’s most-supported club, and at times considered moving to a smaller PSL team first.

“When I got the call to come and train with Chiefs, I thought, ‘how can I train with those guys, they are professional and I come from the Vodacom’. But there was one thing I learnt from my mom when I was young, which is to fight.

“I have to go there and fight and prove that I can play there. I trust myself and know I can do it.”

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