How Vera Pauw rescued Mpumi Nyandeni’s career

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2014 was a year from hell for Nompumelelo Nyandeni! At the peak of her football career, plying her trade in Russia at a time not so many South African women were abroad, she suffered a career-ending injury.

Of course, the injury was sustained late in 2013, but its sting would be felt the following year. The first time she felt the pain on her knee, she thought it would pass like any other niggle in football. But that was not to be.

Mpumi Nyandeni, as many refer to her, was just 27 at the time. The world firmly at her feet. The future as bright as sunlight coming through your window on your day off in summer. Or perhaps fair sunshine after winter’s storms.

Being in snowy Russia, turning out for the now defunct WFC Rossiyanka meant so many things to her and many others.

It was a reward for the barefoot days where she was known as the girl whose unadorned feet dazzled opponents with skills so deft you’d argue she was a boy.

It was consolation for that botched Arsenal trial in 2003 that nonetheless ignited a desire to play overseas.

It was also fulfilling her long time desire to play football professionally. To the girls she left behind at Detroit Ladies in Mpumalanga, who had otherwise abandoned the game after their barefoot wizard left, it was somewhat a signal of hope.

“Detroit collapsed straight after I left,” she tells FARPost. Nyandeni had walked into the Mpumalanga side as a starry-eyed teenager to become extremely influential at the club.

So influential was she that when she left for Russia, her teammates felt there was no reason to continue playing the game. That marked the end of the club.

By her own admission, Clancinah Rankwane, popularly known as Spannera, was one of the first to hang her boots after their heroine left. She unashamedly cites her departure as the reason.

“She was a real captain, a true leader. I’d even say she was the glue that held us together. Things weren’t the same when she left,” Rankwane tells FARPost.

Interestingly, Nyandeni’s love for the game began at the tender age of six. Her older brother, she says, would always take her along to games.

However, it wasn’t always playing the game that she did. Sometimes she would be that girl that ran up and down the line as an assistant referee. Sometimes she would blow the whistle in the middle like our dearly loved Akhona Makalima.

“It’s those experiences that got me deeply in love with the game,” she says. In fact, the day Detroit founder, Jurry Kgomo, ‘scouted’ her, she was on the other end of that parched Kwaggafontein field busy assisting the whistle man. She was a tiny little girl aged 13.

“Jurry [Kgomo] found me as a lineswoman. The way I loved football, I just wanted to be around the football pitch, I would ref sometimes,” adds the Katlehong-born star.

Interestingly, he was looking for another player in Dennilton, a town that lies on the Gauteng-Mpumalanga provincial border.

“I was actually looking for another player when someone pointed at a girl who was the lineswoman and said she was a good player,” Kgomo tells FARPost.

If he was doubting Thomas that day, halftime would be the moment all his doubts were put to the sword. The talented teenager took to the centre of the field and started showing off her skills to a point that Kgomo swore he was not watching a girl. After a bit of convincing, he agreed to visit her home and request to have her join Detroit for training the following week.

Attending that training, which her aunt, who was her guardian, had no qualms with meant taking two taxis from Dennilton to Kwaggafontein. It’s a distance of about 25km.

There was a bit of drama though before she took that trip. She blew the R20 transport money gambling and had to employ ‘desperate measures’ to raise it.

It would be the first time training with girls. All she had ever known was to dribble boys. Unsurprisingly, she found girls slow and boring. She wanted the tempo of the boys’ game. Even if she tried dictating the pace the way she knew how to in the middle of the park, her teammates just had a way of slowing it down.

“I didn’t have soccer boots, I was used to Rovers where we played barefoot with boys,” adds Nyandeni, who earned the nickname ‘Mbuzi’.

That decade-long stint with Detroit would get her seen by national team selectors before she turned 16. Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Portia Modise, Sibongile Khumalo and Khabo Zitha left her in awe. Things were happening so fast for her with a national Under 20 call up also following.

Everything seemed to be building up to that momentous occasion – Tuesday 12 August 2003 – when she arrived in the capital of England, London, for an Arsenal trial just seven days before her 16th birthday.

She had travelled with Veronica Phewa, Modise and Tanya Carelse. Banyana Banyana manager Fran Hilton-Smith and former Bafana Bafana captain Neil Tovey were instrumental in securing the trials.

“We saw Patrick Vieira and some of the top players there, it was a beautiful, eye-opening experience. While we didn’t manage to talk to the players, just seeing them was enough to inspire us,” she says.

The Gunners they saw were that revered class that won the 2003/04 Premier League title without losing a single match, a feat that earned them the nickname ‘The Invincibles’. Not the current crop that has turned the Gunners of London into the laughing stock of world football.

The then commander-in-chief, Arsene Wenger, had, in his dressing room, the likes of Thierry Henry, Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole, Nwankwo Kanu and Dennis Bergkamp.

Unfortunately, “the move could not happen; she was still below 18 to move there on a professional football contract”, says Kgomo.

While she shed tears after the potential move collapsed, she knew what she had to do to get another move overseas.

“I cried, but I felt I had to work hard to go and play overseas,” she says. It would be another seven years before her hard work paid off. But before another European dance, she lifted the 2009 Sasol League title in Detroit colours.

In 2010, Alex Bondarenko facilitated a move to Russia although he was not officially her agent. “It was like a dream when the offer came. I felt Arsenal wasn’t for me but God gave me another chance to play in Russia,” she says.

Interestingly, she had to take that flight to Khimki, some 18 kilometres northwest of central Moscow, alone. She jokingly says God “was my agent”.

In 2013, after establishing herself in the largest country in the world, covering over 17 million square kilometres, she became the first South African female footballer to reach the quarter final stage of the Uefa Women’s Champions League.

“I felt like a true professional player, it also showed me that playing in a professional league was a beautiful thing,” she says.

While riding on the crest of a wave, with interest from several top clubs in Europe, the knee injury forced her to return home in 2014.

“It was quite weird because each time I was walking the knee was never an issue, but the moment I started running on the pitch it became so painful.

“So, because I had a few offers, the club thought I was on the verge of signing with another club. They thought I was lying about the injury. They decided to cut my salary, I refused and decided to return home,” she says, adding that she had been to several specialists yet she couldn’t get help.

Nyandeni joined JVW in 2014 although she doubted she would be in the game any longer because of the nagging injury.

“She was unsure of which team to join and when we were in a national team camp together, I asked her if she was interested to join JVW even though the team wasn’t well established just yet. Without hesitation she agreed,” JVW founder Janine van Wyk tells FARPost from her Scotland base.

“I wasn’t sure if she was joking but she wasn’t. She made it clear that she wants to be part of a team where she could share her experiences and knowledge with younger players so that she could assist them with their growth and development in the game.

“I was ecstatic and very excited to share it with everyone at the club, and everyone was of course delighted to have her at the club.”

The former Banyana international, capped 149 with 39 goals, credits former national team coach Vera Pauw for reviving her career. The two had met in Russia where the Dutch coach served as technical director of the national team.

“I had given up because of the injury when she called me to invite me to the national team in 2014. She never gave up on me, I’m grateful for her because I wouldn’t be in this game if it wasn’t for her and the then Banyana physio Karen [Fleishman] who patiently worked with me,” says Nyandeni, who turned 34 last Thursday.

Five years after that career renaissance, she captained the Bedfordview-based JVW to the Sasol League title. The former youth international, who boasts a record of 12 goals in 13 Under 20 fixtures, recalls how she had set out to score 50 goals in the 2019 edition of the Sasol League. She did just that.

She ended the Gauteng provincial league with 44 goals and went into the championships scoring the remaining six goals which totalled the big 50.

“I know full well I may never have another first-hand account of a player scoring 50 goals in a season during my career and for that, Mpumi, I thank you,” admitted JVW coach Ciara Picco.

As she continues to enjoy her career in the Hollywoodbets Super League, her heart’s desire is to bring the best out of JVW youngsters where she also serves as a development coach.

RELATED STORY: Khabo Zitha: The girl who effortlessly captained boys

By Mthokozisi Dube