Clearly, the man – adored by many for his silky skills during his playing days – has moved on after his career was cut short by a knee injury at just 29. The Maritzburg City coach is producing talents after all with the likes of Bucs star Siphesihle Ndlovu, Royal AM forward Sedwyn George and AmaZulu’s Philani Zulu coming through his hands.
It’s well documented that his career was ended by an injury, but I’d never really pondered the circumstances. But for a few nights after that chat, I keep having nerve-wracking imaginations of how it all happened.
The “if onlys” that flood my mind are just plentiful. “If only” he had not been introduced as a second half substitute in that pre-season friendly match against SuperSport United in the ‘Circle City’ Welkom on that fateful afternoon in June 2002. “If only” the referee had blown the whistle seconds before it happened because it was literally the last kick. With his kind of talent, the sea of possibilities was just enormous.
But then again, it is what it is! Such is life! Such is football – a game we so love yet from time to time it leaves us nursing a heartache.
Earlier in 2002‚ Ephraim ‘Shakes’ Mashaba had taken a talented bunch of Under 23 players to the illustrious Espoirs de Toulon tournament in France. They finished sixth in the 10-team tournament widely regarded as the unofficial ‘World Youth Championships’‚ following defeats to Japan and Italy‚ a draw with Germany and a win over the Republic of Ireland.
‘Sguda’ was a vital cog in that team, even catching the eye of French side Monaco scouts. “This agent from Cameroon, who was based in France, was checking on me after that tournament until I got injured in a friendly match. The last time he called, he asked about the injury and I told him ‘doctors said I would be lucky if I play again’. That was the last time I heard from him,” Cele tells FARPost.
The man had the world firmly at his feet. The knee injury, which came in his second season at Bucs, kept him on the sidelines for almost an entire season.
From July 2002 to March 2003, he would only watch the team on television while doing his physio back in Maritzburg.
“I’ll forever be grateful for what Pirates did for me during that period. I had to go back home to Maritzburg where the team organised a physio for me,” he says with visible gratitude.
Perhaps that was the injury that also cut short his romance with skull and crossbones despite his immense talent.
“He was very talented. He had this creative South African flair, good at passing, with vision. He was brilliant,” ex-Buccaneer Innocent Chikoya tells FARPost. “The knee injury gave him problems, but I have no doubt he would have gone very far.”
Chikoya recalls how Augusto Palacios always had a mouthful to say to his players before sending them on as substitutes. When it came to Cele, however, he simply went against the tide. When everyone around him insisted the man from Pietermaritzburg was only good on the ball and not marking, Palacios simply loved him. Just as he was.
“He used to put me on the bench, but I knew that at some stage he’d put me in. We always see coaches giving substitutes instructions before they come on. Palacios would give all the other players instructions, but when it came to me, he’d only say, ‘You know hey. You know hey,’” Cele says.
That ‘you know hey’ had a profound meaning. It meant, ‘go and do your thing, I trust you’. Palacios has not forgotten his much-loved Sguda, who arrived at Pirates in 2001, together with his immensely extraordinary homeboy Mbulelo ‘Old John’ Mabizela.
He also remembers how gifted the then 20-year-old Sguda was. “Some players you need to tell them what to do because they are not tactically good. Sguda was just intelligent, he knew what he had to do. You’d just send him on and he’d do what he had to do,” Palacios tells FARPost.
In 2009, after stints with Golden Arrows and AmaZulu, he had to hang up his boots albeit with a heavy heart. He had hoped to go on and on, but the persistent knee injury meant he couldn’t.
Clearly, the football gods have a sense of humour! The very same year he hung his boots is the very same year his son Kamvalethu Cele started frequenting the football ground.
Of course, like any other boy growing up in Imbali, he played football on the street.
“Football runs in the family, my dad actually played although he didn’t play professionally. It was clear from an early age that I’d play football. From a young age, my son showed signs that he would one day play football.
“He [Kamvalethu] was five when playing street football and you could see something was coming up,” Cele says.
In 2010, when he became a coach at Maritzburg City, his boy would always be at training after school. Not just lazing around and picking up stray balls. He would be juggling his own ball, unintentionally sharpening his skills.
“He would take a ball and do all manner of tricks,” recalls the doting dad.
In 2016, under the guidance of the late Bongi Hlophe, who passed on last month, they decided to start junior teams for Maritzburg City. Coincidentally, his son had started asking him when he would get a chance to play against his peers.
For Cele, the blueprint was “to create a clever player that would not only shine in an environment of a programme, but individually stand on their own and get to progress” even as far as Europe.
His former colleagues in the game Siphesihle Ngobese, Effort Sithole and Sibusiso Ngcobo would be tasked to coach the youngsters while Cele, a holder of a Caf B License, would be in charge of the first team.
His eldest son, also a silky midfielder, was then in the Under 14 side under Ngobese. The teenager, who turned 18 on Sunday, recently signed a professional contract with Maritzburg United and, according to Ngobese, is making steady progress.
While his dad is cautious about praising him, Ngobese tips him to “not only be one of the best players in South Africa, but he will be recognised even beyond our borders in the next 10 years.”
“I have been working with the boy since he was 10 years old and in each of those years, he has never played with players from his age group. He was always playing in the divisions of players older than him, and that’s how good he is,” Ngobese says.
Interestingly, Cele, who attended coaching courses under Ted Dumitru, believes his son is more talented than he was, but insists he still has to put in the hard work.
“People like blowing things out of proportion and expect a lot because he is so and so’s son. He’s good, he’s better than me, he has all the attributes that modern football demands from a midfield player.
“He covers lots of ground, makes box entries, against Royal AM [in the MDC] he had a goal disallowed, you need to switch the ball, you need to be creative in small spaces, and he’s good with that.
“He was gifted with a better physical profile, quick, strong on the ball and fit. I was blessed with all that but I didn’t have a good engine when it was time to mark and defend. He’s a modern number 10. But he must tell people with his ability,” says a cautious Cele, adding they had to turn down offers from Gauteng teams.
While his career was cut short, Cele learned many lessons from his experience. Perhaps his bit was to learn the lessons and pass on the lessons to his three sons, who all have a keen interest in the game.
Maybe the Cele boys will put the name of his family back on the map of South African football!
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By Mthokozisi Dube