As you walk into Lena Verdica Ralani’s lounge in her Dunstan, Kimberley home, a signed Manchester United jersey immediately calls for your attention.
You need not be a football fundi to know it’s extraordinary memorabilia. Absolute keepsakes stuff! The priceless frame and 2007 Man U kit is right in the corner of the living room on a lofty table, you can’t even miss it.
Right above it is a smaller portrait of the boy who earned that irreplaceable shirt – Bradley ‘Surprise’ Ralani.
It makes sense why Mama Lena, affectionately known as Sister Anne, has had to keep the picture in Kimberley when the recipient is 955,7 km away in Cape Town. It’s the perfect nostalgia piece that evokes memories of a journey well-travelled.
It often takes ‘Sister Anne’ to that day back in 2009 when Kagisho ‘Spakes’ Matile came to ask for her son to take him to some academy in Johannesburg. At that point, her son was working for the Department of Sports in Northern Cape.
A former pastime footballer herself for the Kaizer Chiefs Supporters’ Club, she had watched her five-year-old son kick the ball with keen interest. Often, his dad, who owned an amateur club United Eagles in the mining town, would be refereeing for the Under 10s.
So, he would hold his boy’s hand and each time the ball came close to him, he would stop it for him to kick it in any direction. The kit he would be wearing was so big they had to strap it around his arms with rubber bands. None of that mattered though.
“I just enjoyed kicking the ball,” Ralani tells FARPost.
Even when he was old enough to turn out for Griquas [provincial team], after being recruited by the late former Chiefs star Jacob ‘Pro’ Pilane, she continued following his progress.
She vividly remembers a day she was late for a Griquas game. “I was still by the gate when I heard people celebrating a goal, I told everyone around me that I was so sure my son had scored a goal. The moment I walked into the stadium, I saw kids surrounding him celebrating,” she tells FARPost.
One moment led to the other. But, like any other journey, there are those moments that have been pivotal. Some of those moments have demanded sacrifice.
In his case, it meant quitting a government job that paid him a monthly salary to go to a football academy. “I made it clear to him he was going to an academy where he would not be paid,” Matile tells FARPost.
That academy stint came just a year after Chiefs released him from the Under 19 side where he was coached by Ace Khuse and the late Ryder Mofokeng.
“He was at Kaizer Chiefs but they didn’t want him eventually and we sent him to Sweden instead,” says Farouk Khan, who welcomed him at his Stars of Africa Academy.
Just a week after impressing at Stars of Africa, he happened to play in a friendly match. Unbeknown to him, there were scouts from Sweden following the proceedings.
“I scored two goals. I had a very good game. They told Farouk they wanted me for Sweden, but he insisted he still wanted to polish me. The coach [Bo Nilsson] took my number and he kept checking up,” the talented attacker recalls.
Once Khan, a former Chiefs assistant coach, was done polishing the diamond in his hands, he exported it to Sweden albeit for three months. This was at the end of 2009.
Bo Nilsson, the same man who took May Mahlangu to Europe, was in charge of Helsingborg IF. Henrik Larsson, whose 242 goals in 315 matches saw Glasgow Celtic fans nickname him ‘The King of Kings’, was winding up his playing career at his hometown club.
“I had a three months’ visa just so the club could see how I would fit in. I was training with Henrik Larsson, but he sustained a knee injury in a Uefa match,” Ralani says.
While training with Helsingborg, he would play competitively with a fourth tier side IFK Hässleholm to gain experience. After his three months finished, he returned to South Africa.
Nilsson had fallen in love with his game and was keen on signing him. Unfortunately, the club announced they were parting ways with him the following season. It was a massive blow for the Kimberley-born star’s hopes of a career in Europe.
A few weeks down the line, Larsson hung up his boots in November 2009 and was handed a coaching job by Landskrona IP while Ralani trained to keep fit back at the academy.
Having played with Jabu Pule [now Mahlangu] at Helsingborg, popularly known as The Red Ones, the man crowned Greatest Swedish Footballer of the last 50 Years in 2003, wanted the former Amakhosi ace in his team.
“He reached out to Bo Nilsson asking him to help him get Jabu Pule,” says Ralani. Bo Nilsson, who was instrumental at the start of Larsson’s career, had other ideas.
He was so convinced he had a younger version of ‘Shuffle’. ‘I’ll bring you someone younger,’ was Nilsson’s answer, according to his South African prodigy.
Reluctantly, the two-time La Liga winner with Barcelona agreed, throwing a lifeline at Ralani’s desire to play in Europe.
“Just out of the blue I got a call from Bo Nilsson. He asked if I wanted to return to Sweden because Henrik wanted a player. I wanted to go back and play football professionally,” he recalls.
He arrived in Landskrona, a city supposedly founded in 1413 by the King of Denmark – Eric of Pomerania – exactly a day before the transfer window closed. On a snowy deadline day, the club had a friendly match. So, the 2006 Uefa Champions League winner threw him into the fray.
By his own admission, he struggled to assert himself. Nonetheless, Larsson handed him a short-term deal because his first touch resembled that of his former Barca teammate – Ronaldinho.
“He told me he was not happy with my performance. He then said: ‘the one thing that showed me you’re a good player is your first touch’. He compared my first touch to Ronaldinho’s,” a blissful Ralani says.
He did not hesitate to sign the three-month contract he was offered. For the entire three months, he was always the rookie coach’s first sub. But there was one game where the team’s left winger was suspended.
The BaSotho Tigers product was deployed there and he turned on a five-star performance, even winning man of the match.
Surprisingly, the next match he was back on the bench. But Larsson, who spent two months under Manchester United’s legendary manager Sir Alex Fergusson in 2007, sat him down and explained that his turn would soon come.
With just a week before the end of his short stint, Larsson needed him again. The team was trailing 1-0 with 30 minutes to go. They needed to win to keep up pace with the Superettan log leaders who were four points ahead of them.
Desperate for maximum points, the then budding manager summoned the South African midfielder. The instruction was simple: ‘go and win the game for me’. He just had to put the bit-part role frustration at the back of his mind and repay the man.
Once again, he didn’t disappoint, putting up a dazzling performance, and his two assists won them the game. “After the game, he ran across the field to me and he hugged me. He said ‘thank you son’. He was so happy.”
Big Swedish sides including Malmö FF, where the great Zlatan Ibrahimović cut his football teeth, and Helsingborg were after him. His three months at Landskrona were almost over.
The media had caught wind of his contract situation. So, after the 2-1 win, they were all over him. The million-dollar question was which club he would settle for.
Knowing how cunning journos could be, Larsson stood right next to him throughout the post-match interviews. When the winger was asked what he would do if Landskrona could not afford him, Larsson had a shocking answer.
‘Surprise is going nowhere, if Landskrona can’t afford him I’ll pay him myself’. The following day, the story was splashed all over the front pages of Sweden’s newspapers.
DID YOU KNOW? Kop Surprise means ‘Buy Surprise’
After being handed a six month extension, he scored seven goals and assisted five in 18 games. Larsson gifted him the signed number 17 Manchester United jersey. “He gave it to me framed and said ‘thank you for the good season’. I have his jersey till today. I just couldn’t wear the jersey. I kept it framed.”
After three years in charge of the team, Larsson left. Ralani would play another two seasons before a knee injury kept him on the sidelines for several months.
“I was praying that God help him during that period. It was painful for me,” his mom says. Her God answered her prayers when he was handed a two year contract by Danish side, Lyngby FC, in 2015.
However, the club fired the coach who signed him after he failed to guide them to the topflight despite being at the top for much of the season.
“A new coach [David Nielsen] had to come and we worked with him. We won promotion to the top flight League [the following season],” he says, adding that the same coach he won the league with is the same man coaching Gift Links at Danish Superliga club AGF.
After some limited game time in the elite league, he called Larsson, who was now in charge of Swedish side, Helsingborg. He invited him to come and train with the team so they could assess him. “I trained for five minutes and he said stop, go and sign a contract. I stayed another season.”
In 2017, Ralani returned home to play in the PSL for the first time in Cape Town City colours. The coach who handed him his first professional contract, Larsson, continues to soar as he serves as assistant coach at Barcelona.
RELATED STORY: May Mahlangu: The journey-man made for Europe
By Mthokozisi Dube