FARPost has an ask: “Where Is Hlompho Kekana?”

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Where is ‘Hlompho?

This is a pertinent question that needs answers. However before answering the question, this question raises questions of its own. How can FARPost, a publication that answers football questions, ask about ‘Hlompho’? Don’t FARPost editor and journalists have contact details of ‘Hlompho’? Wait FARPost, aren’t you the ones who are supposed to tell us about ‘Hlompho’?

Fair enough. If the Hlompho you are wondering about is one of the most decorated players in the history of PSL, then you are right to assume that FARPost ought to know about his whereabouts. And we do. At the moment Hlompho Kekana is away on a recess. He told this journalist, via WhatsApp, this week.

However the question remains. In Northern Sotho or Sepedi, ‘hlompho’ means respect.

Ironically Kekana’s situation and uncertainty in football raises questions about respect. As someone who has covered football for over a decade and few years, it always baffles me how South African clubs, in comparison to European outfits, treat players with disdain or disrespect, for a lack of better words. Respect, to Africans, is innately instilled in us. African clubs should be leading the world by showing them how to respect players and their people in general but we are not.

I have observed, throughout the years, how footballers are treated by their clubs. Let’s go to Europe. Let’s focus on how African players are treated by their European teams. Take Bafana Bafana legends Lucas Radebe and Sibusiso Zuma, who made indelible marks at Leeds United and FC Copenhagen respectively. To this day, Radebe and Zuma are cult figures. In Yorkshire, Radebe has a bus named after him. There’s a band that goes by the name Kaiser Chiefs. They are named in honour of Lucas Radebe’s former club Kaizer Chiefs.

There are a number of young boys in Leeds named Lucas after the defensive rock who served the club with aplomb. That’s not all. The cherry on top is that the former Leeds captain has a suite at Elland Road, Leeds United Stadium, named after him. He is an icon in that part of the world. If Radebe were to walk in the street, where rival gangs are about to fight in Leeds, the fight might as well be over. However if he were to do the same in Soweto or Seshego or Mitchell’s Plain, he might land in a hospital or a morgue. How sad!

In Denmark, Zuma, whose famous bicycle goal is entrenched in the hearts of FC Copenhagen fans, is a king. Whenever he visits the club, the whole stadium sings his name. Zuma’s goal was voted the club’s greatest goal ever (check it out in YouTube).

Outside their Telia Parken Stadium, FC Copenhagen even erected a statue of Zuma with a depiction of his goal, an unforgettable moment in their history. That’s how respected Zuma is.

Radebe and Zuma don’t need tickets to watch their former clubs in Europe. In 2019, disturbing pictures of Zimbabwean legend Benjani Mwaruwari made the rounds on social networks. Benjani, who used his own money to finance some of the Warriors’ activities at some point, was seen jostling to enter the Barbourfields Stadium in his country, where FC Platinum were hosting Orlando Pirates in a CAF clash. And yet at Manchester City, Benjani has a place reserved for him.

He can walk in anytime without a ticket to watch a match at the Etihad. When former Bafana defender Anele Ncgonca passed on, his club Belgian club Genk, whom he served for almost a decade, retired his jersey number ‘16’ as a sign of respect.

Interestingly when his former club Mamelodi Sundowns and Stellenbosch FC stopped their match at Loftus in the 16th minute, to honour the fallen hero, they were charged by the PSL with bringing the league into disrepute. The merit and demerits of the case is not something I want to engage in. But I am on honour.

Locally, former footballers are not valued. They often jostle for complimentary tickets with the ordinary members of the public. Footballing nations that are serious have a plan for players from the age of five until the day they breathe their last. Even beyond their playing days, players are still valued. Steven Pienaar and Quinton Fortune still serve Everton and Manchester United in various capacities respectively.

I am privy to heartbreaking stories at top PSL clubs, where legends are not regarded. There was a time where the powers that be at a certain PSL club did not pick up calls of one of their best players ever. The player, a fan favourite, delivered league titles to the club but officials ignored his calls.

Another former player, who ironically formed a devastating combination with the other in midfield, was employed by the same club but went for five months without pay. They were not just ordinary players. Their posters hang on the walls of the same club. Comfortingly in later years the club would rectify the mistakes by employing both players with better treatment. Why not do that from the onset?

By and large, South Africa has an issue of respect when it comes to players. It’s like players are treated like bubble gum, once they lose their sweetness, they get spat out. The treatment of players should prompt players to save money so that they can afford to buy tickets post their playing days. It looks like South African football has no preservation plan for players. Go do a survey of your football legends. Sadly transition or retirement for local players is not handled properly. Most are forced to retire. Hence most of them battle depression after their playing days.

The Hlompho Kekana situation at Sundowns should lead us, all stakeholders in South African football, to ask ourselves critical questions. Are we doing enough to honour our players? How come our players just walk away without benefit matches and statues outside our offices or stadiums? Is there room for our players, in our football, after their playing days? Why don’t we have a culture of honour? Is there honour among us or are we stealing future glory by perpetuating a culture of lack of respect? Do former players have a role in helping the country to do better?

South Africans, irrespective of their club allegiances, should never be okay with a player like Hlompho Kekana, who gave his heart and soul to football and Sundowns, leaving Chloorkop like just another footballer. Kekana may not be indispensable but he is irreplaceable.

I dare ask again. Where is ‘hlompho’?

By Hosea Ramphekwa