Nkosinathi Sibisi: The striker-turned-defender playing with calmness amid chaos

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Ever been so convinced something you desperately want will one day come to full manifestation that you keep professing it?

Speaking things that are not as though they already exist! Such that you even call yourself that particular thing.

That was Nkosinathi Sibisi many years ago back in eMpophomeni, some 14km outside the picturesque little town Howick in the Natal Midlands.

‘I am international’, he would often brag jestly to his childhood friends.

Forget that the odds were heavily stacked against him, the boy just had an inkling that it could happen after all. This was a boy who never had the opportunity to see what it meant to live as a man from his father.

He is well aware that philosophers say boys who see man stuff in action around the home on a day-to-day basis are at an advantage to be better equipped. But, growing up, he didn’t have the close relationship he yearned for with his dad.

“I thrive on challenges my brother. I faced a few challenges growing up. We were not really close with my father so everything I know I was taught by my mother, which is the reason I worked so hard so that one day I’d repay her hard work,” Sibisi tells FARPost.

Amidst all the challenges he was faced with as a youngster, he just believed. His faith was all he had to have his talent carry him through to the international stage that he dreamt of.

When he sums up his journey, the thriving soccer ace is convinced ‘words are like seeds’. In fact, in his book of life, when you speak something out, you give life to what you’re saying. As you continue saying and working towards it, it will eventually become a reality.

That is the reason he kept foretelling his desired future.

While playing eMpophomeni I would tell my teammates after every game that I am international, and they would laugh,” Sibisi tells FARPost.

Sanele Thahla, who played with him early on in his childhood at Real Connection, remembers the international talk quite vividly. How would he not remember when it was said so frequently at the end of every game?

He is quick to admit, though, that it sounded like gibberish. Empty talk, he thought!

“Ha, ha, ha I remember he used to say he is international. We were young back then and it sounded like hot air to us. It just didn’t make sense, but it’s good to see it’s all unfolding now,” Thahla tells FARPost.

Interestingly, the idea was to become an international striker, pulling on that Bafana Bafana jersey with pride and getting goals for his beloved country. Never did it cross his mind earlier on that he would end up being a defence stalwart.

In fact, Sandile Cyril Mchunu, a youth coach based in eMpophomeni, stumbled upon 13-year-old Sibisi playing with other boys on a dusty pitch in the township in 2008. He was not part of the rearguard, but deployed upfront by his peers who trusted his scoring instinct.

“I saw him playing on the streets with other boys and I took him and started grooming him. I selected seven other boys from that group and Lindokuhle Zondi [who plays for Free State Stars] was part of that group.

“The reason I picked him was because he seemed passionate about football and when I approached him I noticed he was full of respect.

“I thought he was a boy I could groom, but he used to play upfront and we converted him to play defence. When the team couldn’t score goals I’d occasionally use him upfront,” Mchunu tells FARPost.

According to Thahla, his friend didn’t just profess to be international. He backed up the talk with hard work and sheer dedication.

“He was always willing to work and wherever we played, the coaches loved his attitude. He was disciplined, he would never miss a training session. He was a leader and put his all into the game,” says Thahla, adding that he has never seen Sibisi on the field without the captain’s armband. Trusted leader, he has always been!

Even when he was asked to switch positions when a centre-back didn’t turn up for a game, Thahla says he kept his head high and played as though he were born in the heart of defence.

“He was a good striker, he used to score lots of goals with his head. He was really good with aerial balls. I don’t remember him scoring a long range shot, it was either heading or outmuscling defenders.

“When he was changed to play at the back, he was equally dedicated. I think that’s what made him successful,” Thahla adds.

What started off as a temporary switch became a comfortable permanent position. Of course, before slotting in the heart of defence, he went via central midfield.

“You could tell he was steady, he started off build-ups from the back. He became comfortable playing at the back. Luckily, we had a couple of strikers so we ended up playing him at the back,” Mchunu says.

When asked about that transition, he has an interesting response. “Ey, back in those days I really didn’t like being kicked by defenders, so I went into midfield, but at centre-back that’s where I really enjoyed playing,” Sibisi tells FARPost.

He, however, admits the transition was not easy, but credits the striking stint for gifting him unbelievable anticipation and technique.

“I think playing as a striker in my younger days helps me easily anticipate what a striker might do,” the 25-year-old adds.

After six years at Real Connection where he was a junior to the likes of Khulekani Madondo, who is at TS Sporting, and the late Mlondi Dlamini, the man nicknamed ‘Bodlela’ moved to Durban for his studies.

The move to Mangosuthu University of Technology in 2014 where he spent three years studying Public Administration landed him ‘in the right places’.

“I played for the varsity, and after some time I heard that there were trials at Arrows. I was scouted by Vusi Vilakazi for the MDC team,” he says.

Sibisi, who dropped out of varsity after three years, went on to spend three seasons with the MDC side. In those three seasons, they won the MDC twice, scoring trips to Spain and the Netherlands where they got the opportunity to work with Barcelona and Dutch legend, Johan Neeskens.

“It was a great experience going to Spain and the Netherlands. It changed the way we viewed football after seeing how seriously they took it.

“The training sessions from Coach Johan Neeskens were about keeping possession to move the opponents and pounce at the right moment.

“So, it was a good eye opener as well to see that the sky’s the limit in football as long as you are dedicated, disciplined and hard working,” Sibisi adds.

After captaining the Abafana Bes’thende’s MDC team with such aplomb, he was promoted to the senior team in October 2019 by Clinton Larsen.

Larsen tells FARPost that the first thing that struck him about Sibisi was his outstanding personality.

“His personality [struck me] before we even go to his football skills. He’s every coach’s dream – disciplined, willing to learn and listen,” says a proud Larsen.

Even the verbose Steve Komphela, who later coached him, ran out of superlatives to describe the versatile player.

In the end, Komphela, the country’s first national team captain‚ likened him to Italy’s 2006 World Cup winning captain Fabio Cannavaro.

He was so convinced he had the new Cannavaro in his hands. “He’s got all the attributes of a top, modern defender. If you are looking for a new Cannavaro‚ he’s the one‚” said Komphela, a top defender whose talent took him to Turkey during his playing days.

It came as no surprise when his current coach Mandla Ncikazi revealed that he outscored everyone at training recently when they did a shooting exercise.

“I was surprised when we were doing the shooting session and he was the leading scorer. One day when one is desperate, why not [use him upfront],” he tells FARPost.

Bodlela, he says, is a modern defender able to contain any type of striker. Ncikazi hails his exceptional ability to play the ball out from the back.

“He has the ability to play against any type of striker. The (Peter) Shalulile type that looks for space in behind, he can also cope against those that are dribblers like Kermit Erasmus as well as the aerially strong like [Mauricio] Affonso, he deals with them effectively.”

He, therefore, believes Sibisi should have gotten the nod in the PSL defender of the season nominations. AmaZulu defender Tapelo Xoki, Mosa Lebusa of Mamelodi Sundowns and Njabulo Ngcobo of Swallows FC were chosen ahead of him.

“It pains me because if I were to look at the stats they could use, I don’t see anyone beating Sibisi,” Ncikazi added.

The Arrows mentor, also a defender during his playing days, however, takes solace in his captain’s maiden Bafana Bafana call-up.

The international stage is beckoning for the man from eMpophomeni after Bafana Bafana new Coach Hugo Broos named him in the team to play Uganda in a friendly international at Orlando Stadium next Thursday.

Both Larsen and Ncikazi believe the call-up was long overdue. “I’m happy he got a national team call up. It was always on the horizon, he is consistent and never puts a foot wrong,” says Larsen.

And now, Ncikazi is the one echoing his early childhood prophecy as he believes Sibisi could yet become a full international in the years to come!

RELATED STORY: Mandla Ncikazi: From the athletics track to the football pitch

By Mthokozisi Dube

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