Famously known as ‘Midnight Express’ South African legend Helman Mkhalele was born on the 20th of October 1969 in a town called Newcastle in the province of KwaZulu Natal.
The journey of the man who would later write his name in SA’s history books started at a club known for producing top players who go on to be greats – that club is Jomo Cosmos.
Mkhalele signed his first professional contract with the Johannesburg-based side in 1990 playing 95 games accompanied by 25 goals in his three seasons spent there. Cosmos had a good cup run in the 1990 Bob Save Super Bowl which they ended up winning by beating AmaZulu with Mkhalele getting his first ever silverware in his first season in professional football.
Having established himself as one of the key players at Cosmos Mkhalele caught the attention of the bigger clubs in the league with Orlando Pirates eventually snatching him up in 1993. This switch would be a start of what would be the most fruitful period in the winger’s career as he reached the next step in his career.
Mkhalele started his time at Pirates steadily going one season without winning silverware, but it would be the next season that would see the his career rocket, starting with winning the 1994 league tittle with the Buccaneers.
Winning the league qualified Pirates for the CAF Champions League which they made history by winning in 1995 thus becoming the first Southern African club to lift the trophy, a big milestone in South African football.
In 1996 Pirates followed up with winning the CAF Super Cup which completed the continental double for the club, a big achievement by the Buccaneers with Mkhalele at the centre of it all.
Between 1994 and 1997 Pirates also won the Bob Save Super Bowl and BP Top Eight trophies with an unstoppable attack that included the legendary former Bafana Bafana striker Jerry Sikhosana. Mkhalele played a total of 138 games for the Buccaneers scoring 23 goals.
His performances with Pirates earned Mkhalele his first Bafana Bafana call up in 1994, a start of what would be a very successful international career. Having been included in the national team by Clive Barker, Mkhalele now formed part of a pool of players that were being brought into a fairly new Bafana Bafana set up with South Africa having just been re-admitted back as a member of FIFA in 1992 therefore being back in the international scene.
New coach Barker was given a mission of taking South Africa to the top by the South African Football Association a project the former Amazulu FC coach accepted.
A new Democratic rainbow nation South Africa was given hosting rights for the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations by the Confederation of African Football which was highly welcomed by a community in need of unity and which better way to achieve that besides Sport.
In 1996 South Africa went on to win the Africa Cup of Nations as Bafana Bafana became officially recognised in the African continent defeating formidable opponents like Ghana, Cameroon and Tunisia on the way to being crowned champions of Africa.
This is the period where many noticed Bafana had the capacity to compete against the best in the world, most notably against then world champions Brazil. That game, which Bafana lost 3-2, marked what was the greatest period in the history of the national team and in that game Mkhalele was a thorn for the Brazilians as he haunted them with his speed.
Mkhalele would then be part of the 1998 team that went to the AFCON in Burkina Faso and lost in the final against the Pharaohs of Egypt.
‘Midnight Express’ played in the qualification rounds and eventually made the final 1998 FIFA World Cup squad that represented South Africa in her first ever FIFA World Cup, an achievement many players of that generation will forever cherish in their lifetime.
Back in club football the winger attracted a number European clubs with his performances for both club and country which led to him moving to Turkey to join Kayserispor in the Turkish Super Lig where he only stayed for the 1997/98 season playing 23 games accompanied by 6 goals.
The next season the South African moved to his second club in Turkey Ankaragucu where he played 58 games for the side between 1998 and 2001. The winger had already spent three seasons in the Turkish topflight so gained a lot of experience and game time which contributed a lot to the national team and the clubs he featured for at those times.
Mkhalele was in his prime now so playing more games was important for him hence he needed a switch in his career so he opted for a move to Goztepe who were just recently promoted.
In 53 games played for Goztepe over three seasons the winger scored three goals. A move to Malatyaspor in 2003 would be his last move in Europe before returning to his first professional club back in Mzansi having played 50 times for Malatyasor and scoring three goals.
In 2005 Mkhalele signed for Jomo Cosmos from Turkish club Malatyaspor. At ‘Ezenkosi’ the speedy winger played 14 games between 2005 and 2008 before hanging up his boots as a professional footballer at the age of 39.
In the national team beyond 1998 ‘Midnight Express’ played in the 2000 AFCON under coach Trott Moloto where Bafana were eliminated in the semifinal stage by Nigeria. This tournament would prove to be his last in Bafana Bafana colours as he retired In 2001 having represented his country 66 times scoring 8 goals. The attacker featured in three AFCONs, a FIFA Confederations Cup (1997) and a FIFA World Cup for his country.
He is currently the coach of South Africa’s national U20 team after being assistant to former coach Thabo Senong who left the position in 2019. He was part of the technical team that took Amajita to the 2019 U20 FIFA World Cup.
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By Prince Sobayeni