When Nange Tshilidzi left Black Leopards in 2006, his plan was to help youngsters at his home team Shanzha Continentals as he wound up his football career.
After all, his people back in the village, Shanzha, in the Vhembe District, had supported him throughout his career. He was their pride. He owed the last few years of his playing days to them.
So, he joined the then fourth tier side knowing pretty well that the team was so close to the hearts of the community.
Tshilidzi was so sure he had a couple of years to entertain his people with his pace, skill and knack for scoring goals.
But, what he forgot was the fact that the bundle of joy he first held in his hands on 11 December 1991, five years prior to his debut for Dynamos, was now 15 years old.
The boy – Phathutshedzo Nange – had grown so fast he never realised he was ripe for fourth tier action. In fact, from as young as eight he had been following him to home matches and even camp one time.
Believe it or not, the little boy had become a permanent feature on the terraces in every Leopards game.
“He used to bring him to matches and one time he stayed with us in camp,” Joel Masutha, who was Tshilidzi’s teammate at Leopards, tells FARPost.
In the process of following his dad around, he was gradually falling in love with the old man’s passion. To a point that whenever they were asked what they wanted to be after school, he would not want to answer.
This was because he thought no one understood his decision to become a football star and dreaded it when they laughed at him.
“They laughed when I said I wanted to be a football player, there was nothing else that I wanted to be other than playing football,” Nange tells FARPost.
His love for the game, at least according to Masutha, was there for everyone to see. Even an impressive run for the school’s volleyball team that saw him secure a place in the provincial Under 12 squad was not enough to prize him away from football.
“I played volleyball at Shavhani Primary School. Even at high school, I played volleyball. I was so good at it and I actually did well for the province. But it was difficult with volleyball because most schools don’t have volleyball.”
And so, at 15 the unusual happened – father and son found themselves on the pitch together. They were both part of Shanzha Continental’s engine room.
“We were playing a derby in our village against a team called Hungry Lions and I noticed the coach was making a substitution and the person who was coming on was my son. It was so awkward,” he tells FARPost.
It meant the teenager had to scream something like ‘Nange, pass me the ball’ or ‘dad, pass me’ in his native Venda, of course.
But those that know his courteous demeanour will tell you that was not going to happen with him. The respectful boy thought it was inappropriate.
However, the fans that were watching that particular game against Lions did not care how the young man felt. They kept screaming his name, instructing him to ask for the ball from his dad. But he wouldn’t be fooled by spectators.
“It was really uncomfortable. How do you call your dad for a pass? What do you say? I just didn’t know,” Nange says.
Luckily, dad was convinced the boy was the future. Despite not asking for passes from him, the boy proved beyond a shadow of doubt that he was ready for that stage.
It became apparent that Tshilidzi’s heir had ‘arrived’ and was ready to take the baton stick. It was as if the boy was an answer to Black Leopards fans who clamoured that he was retiring from professional football far too early at 35.
“I also think he retired too early because he was still an important player for us. He scored lots of goals and could have played professionally for a few more years,” Masutha adds.
Tshilidzi, who is now 51, was a teacher at Nkoneni Secondary School in Tshiendeulu and the school was 58 km away from Leopards’ training base in Thohoyandou.
It became too much for him to attend training sessions, balancing that with his teaching job. Interestingly, younger Nange was the spitting image of his dad. The boy looked exactly like him. Well, he still does.
Even worse, he would later turn out to be an immaculate central midfielder just like dad was, having started as a left winger.
“I actually asked the [Shanzha] coach why he played the boy and he told me there was nothing he could do. The boy was ready and raring to go,” says Tshilidzi.
There was no holding him back. He was hungry for action. “That was the last time I played football, I quit after that game and I started assisting with the coaching.”
The beautiful side to what was happening was that the boy’s blossoming felt like some sort of vindication for Tshilidzi’s decision to leave professional football while fans were still yearning for him.
Even better, his son’s rise to prominence came in Lidoda Duvha colours. “My proudest moment was when he joined Leopards. When I left the club people felt I still had something to offer. So when my son came through I just felt it was an answer to those people that had been calling for me,” he adds.
But before he pursued a professional career in football, his teacher dad insisted that he go to school first.
Mind you, at high school when they were receiving career guidance, Nange was clear he just wanted football. Academia was far from it. His mind was made up. There was no changing it.
“We fought quite a lot because I insisted if he wanted to play football, he needed to complete his studies first.”
After succumbing to dad’s demands, Nange enrolled for an N6 Electrical Engineering Diploma at the Tshwane South College.
While at college, they would often play tournaments where JDR Stars boss Nditsheni Nemasisi, who was in the process of forming the club, spotted him in 2011.
And so, the journey continued at JDR until dad almost brought it to a halt. “I had to phone the owner of JDR (Nemasisi) to fight. I told him that I didn’t send my boy to play football, I wanted him to study,” Tshilidzi says.
In his first season with JDR, they won promotion to the Vodacom League (now ABC Motsepe). The promotion season got him all pumped up, as he then went for trials at AmaTuks. Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful as Tuks, who were in the topflight, rejected him.
However, weeks later, Mpumalanga Black Aces were impressed after running the rule over him. “At Aces, I passed the trials but my dad refused to let me join them because he wanted me to complete my studies first. So I couldn’t take up that opportunity.”
Nemasisi reveals that, at some point, Mamelodi Sundowns were keen on Nange. However, he picked up an injury that kept him out of the game for eight months. “I was so sure I’d not return to play football,” Nange concedes.
Clearly, he is true testament that when you love something you just won’t give up on it. He held on to his dream.
When Tuks offered a second trial he was not going to miss it. But Nemasisi wanted to make sure the injury was properly healed.
So he sent him for a scan. The outcome was certainly something he didn’t want to hear. He had to go for surgery to fix a broken bone in his foot.
Nange would have none of that. “He’s a soldier, he opted to bandage his foot and go for the trial. In fact, so many times he played with injuries, I remember he once bandaged a knee and played,” Nemasisi tells FARPost.
In 2014, he finally joined Leopards. Of course, it was never a smooth sailing ride for Nange, who spent five seasons at Lidoda Duvha.
It didn’t matter that dad was a club legend. His first two seasons at the Limpopo outfit were difficult as he got minimal action. There was no place for him in the team.
Masutha vividly remembers the turning point. He and Kosta Papic decided to change his playing position from left winger to a central midfielder.
Among other things, they were impressed by how comfortable he was on the ball, his technical abilities, accurate passing and knack for scoring goals.
Interestingly, he could also play as a central defender. All rounder he was. “The coaches told me they were changing me to central midfield and I settled in quite well there.”
Interestingly, after serving Leopards faithfully, Nange the polished box-to-box midfielder caught the eye of Gavin Hunt at Bidvest Wits. Ironically, Hunt, who is now at Kaizer Chiefs, cut his teeth at Leopards.
Under his tutelage, the man nicknamed ‘Pogba’ after the France World Cup winner enjoyed a successful season before he was off to Stellenbosch FC when The Students’ topflight status was sold to Tshakhuma Tsha Madzivhandila.
His dad is elated with the progress his 29-year-old son has made. But his utmost desire is now to see his son don the Bafana Bafana jersey.
“I’d be happy if one day he can play for Bafana Bafana because I didn’t get a chance to play for the national team,” he says.
On the other hand, his son wants to lay his hands on silverware. But one thing is for sure, Tshilidzi remains vindicated by the way his son has run his race after receiving the baton stick from him.