SA players who shone when top European clubs came to visit

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Matches against European giants may be no more than friendlies on paper for PSL clubs, but for some South African footballers, they have been career-changing or even career-defining.

Over the last decade, visits to South Africa from top overseas clubs have not been common. However, there have been plenty of illustrious visitors since South Africa’s re-admission into international football in 1992.

FARPost takes a look at some of the players who shone on the big stage when overseas teams came to SA.

Teboho Moloi (1993 – Orlando Pirates vs. Arsenal)

Arsenal and Manchester United descended upon South African shores in the 1993 off-season for the United Bank International Soccer Festival with Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs.

A year before South Africa’s first democratic elections, it appeared that an era of opportunity beckoned both in football and the country at large. When Teboho Moloi’s opportunity to shine came, he grabbed it with both hands.

The date was 28 July — less than a month after the midfielder’s 25th birthday. Moloi came off the bench as a second-half substitute at FNB Stadium and put in an impressive shift.

Alan Smith scored the game’s only goal in the 71st minute as the Gunners sank the Buccaneers. However, Moloi’s standout performance meant he would soon set sail for pastures new.

“After my performance against Arsenal, a week later, I had to go to Turkey to see if I liked the place or not. I had offers from Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus,” Moloi recalls.

As it turned out, although he enjoyed Istanbul, the club he signed for, Gaziantepspor, was over 1,000 kilometres away.

Moloi returned to Orlando Pirates at the end of the 1993-94 season and later went on to play for Once Caldas in Colombia. He served as an assistant coach for the Buccaneers and more recently as Chippa United’s head coach.

For all the highs and lows that he endured overseas, his life may have been very different but for that eye-catching cameo against Arsenal.

Roger de Sa (1994 – Moroka Swallows vs. Aston Villa)

The United Bank International Soccer Festival was back the following year. This time, Liverpool and Aston Villa were the touring teams.

Moroka Swallows hosted the Villans on 29 May at Ellis Park and a rock-solid performance from Roger de Sa prevented the Birds from being shot down.

Villa’s Guy Whittingham was a constant threat on the day, while Dwight Yorke tested de Sa with a fierce long-range piledriver. However, the Bafana Bafana goalkeeper matched everything thrown at him.

When Villa did finally beat de Sa, their goal was chalked off due to Whittingham straying offside. The final score at Ellis Park was 0-0, much to Villa’s chagrin.

Surprisingly, de Sa’s recollection of the game is somewhat limited.

“I remember that game vaguely. I do remember a speedy winger and [Dwight] Yorke having a few scoring chances,” he tells FARPost.

“It was a mild day in Johannesburg, 25 degrees celsius, at Ellis Park stadium. I remember Ron Atkinson, the Villa manager walking up the tunnel at half time complaining about the heat to me.”

Perhaps de Sa’s illustrious career meant it was not necessary to dwell on his performance against Villa. He went on to play for Mamelodi Sundowns and Wits University before coaching Wits, Santos, Orlando Pirates, and Ajax Cape Town.

De Sa served under Carlos Queiroz as the Bafana Bafana goalkeeper coach and then an advisor for the Portugal national team at the 2010 World Cup. He is currently a director at Cape Umoya United.

Joseph Makhanya, Steve Lekoelea, Sailor Tshabalala & OJ Mabizela (2003 – Orlando Pirates vs. Tottenham Hotspur)

It is difficult to single out even four players from the Orlando Pirates team which outclassed Tottenham Hotspur in a 2-1 win at the ABSA Stadium (now Kings Park).

However, the day belonged mostly to Makhanya, Lekoelea, and Tshabalala, whose impact changed the game, and Mabizela, for whom the game changed his life.

The game was played as part of the 2010 World Cup Bid challenge, as Spurs toured South Africa to play Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs. The North London side met turbulent waters as they met the Buccaneers off the Indian Ocean coast.

Tshabalala, a new signing from Silver Stars, bossed the game in the middle of the park and proved a nightmare for Tottenham to deal with.

Makhanya’s silky skills on the right wing sent Spurs into their shell. On one occasion, he glided past Simon Davies as if he was not even there.

“A lot of people don’t know this — they [Tottenham] got so angry that they didn’t want to exchange jerseys with us. They said we were unprofessional and soccer is not supposed to be played that way. At the end of the day, we needed to show them that before anything, soccer is entertainment before it can be business,” Makhanya recalls.

“It was a game that was being played in terms of the 2010 bid. We were waiting to host the World Cup. It was immediately after England beat South Africa in Durban, so we had to go and play against Tottenham that side,” Makhanya says.

“We needed to show the world what to expect when they were going to come here to South Africa. Then again, it was not only [about] carrying the South African flag high. It was an opportunity for one of us to be selected to get an opportunity to play [in Europe].”

There was surprise as Roy Barreto took Makhanya off just past the hour mark, but he had a trick up his sleeve — something which Makhanya was well aware of himself. On came Lekoelea, who had been the subject of several negative headlines for alleged disciplinary problems.

On this particular day, Lekoelea would let his football do the talking. Apart from matching Makhanya’s silky skills, he sent a stunning free-kick past Rob Burch and into the top corner in the 76th minute.

Tottenham equalised immediately through an unfortunate own goal from Felix Mwamba Musasa. The match was decided when Stephen Carr’s handball gifted Pirates a penalty, which Manyathela slotted home in the 85th minute.

Mabizela caught the eye against Glenn Hoddle’s side, demonstrating his skills as a ball-playing defender and regularly joining in the attack.

This performance would lead to Mabizela signing for Spurs shortly afterwards. Although indiscipline cost him in North London, he did manage to score a worldie against Leicester City in October 2003, delivering on the attacking promise he showed against Spurs in Durban.

Rowen Fernandez (2006 – Kaizer Chiefs vs. Manchester United)

Keeping a clean sheet against Manchester United would satisfy any goalkeeper. To top that up with scoring in a penalty shootout victory surely brings a type of satisfaction that only a Liverpool supporter such as Rowen Fernandez can truly appreciate.

Chiefs put in a fine performance at Loftus Versfeld in the final of the 2006 Vodacom Challenge, which also featured Orlando Pirates and Manchester United. Emmanuel ‘Scara’ Ngobese mesmerised Sir Alex Ferguson’s side with his silky skills, but the game finished goalless.

In the end, it was a solid defensive performance plus Fernandez’s penalty shootout heroics which secured victory for Amakhosi.

Fernandez’s stock rose, and he later ended up at Arminia Bielefeld in Germany despite reported interest from England.

It would be unfair to attribute Fernandez’s popularity abroad solely to the win over the Red Devils, however, as he turned heads later in 2006 with his performance for Bafana Bafana against Egypt at Brentford’s Griffin Park — a match which South Africa lost 1-0.

Fernandez returned to South Africa in 2011 and played for SuperSport United and Wits before hanging up his gloves. He currently serves as Highlands Park’s goalkeeper coach — a role which he previously occupied at Orlando Pirates.

Surprise Moriri (2007 – Mamelodi Sundowns vs. Barcelona)

Barcelona faced then-champions Mamelodi Sundowns at Loftus Versfeld in 2007, the early years of the Patrice Motsepe era. Frank Rijkaard’s star-studded team featured the likes of Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o, but they were caught by surprise only a minute and a half in.

Vuyo Mere’s cross from Sundowns’ right flank picked out Brent Carelse, who held the ball up well before teeing up Surprise Moriri to fire past a flabbergasted Victor Valdes.

Gordon Igesund’s side spurned several chances as the match progressed. The Blaugrana were not at their breathtaking best either, but Barca ultimately emerged as 2-1 winners. Goals for the visitors came courtesy of Santiago Ezquerro and Marc Crosas.

Nevertheless, it was a memorable night for Moriri, even though he was already a Bafana Bafana international and a two-time league champion by this stage.

Moriri would remain a Sundowns player until 2016 and played a role in two more title victories.

He retired following a brief stint at Highlands Park, which ended in 2017. He is now working his way up the coaching ranks with Masandawana and currently works with their MultiChoice Diski Challenge squad.

Moriri’s goal against Barcelona was certainly no one-hit wonder, but it will nevertheless live on long in the memory.

Phenyo Mongala (2009 – Orlando Pirates vs. Manchester City)

Botswana international winger Phenyo Mongala struggled for game time at Orlando Pirates due to stiff competition in his position.

Nevertheless, he left the ghost with a memory worth keeping alive — a long-range cracker against emerging mega-club Manchester City at the Peter Mokaba Stadium.

Pirates went into half-time one goal to the good thanks to Lucas Thwala’s penalty after Ben Mee fouled Frank Olivier. If the Buccaneers took the lead in unspectacular fashion, what followed would leave Mark Hughes’ men stunned.

On his debut after signing from the University of Pretoria, substitute Mongala received the ball near the left touchline some 30 yards from goal. From there, he unleashed a stunning left-footed drive which sailed over the head of Stuart Taylor and into the top corner.

It is possible that it was, in fact, a miscued cross, but it was a goal so perfectly executed that it was worth giving the benefit of the doubt.

Unfortunately for Mongala, he struggled to break into the team in his first season. Life did not get any easier with the subsequent arrivals of Daine Klate and Tlou Segolela.

Mongala moved to Bloemfontein Celtic on loan for the 2011-12 season and saw more game time with Phunya Sele Sele. Ahead of the following campaign, he returned to Botswana with Centre Chiefs.

One could hardly have believed it at the time, but three years later, South Africa would see an even more outlandish goal from a substitute against a Manchester side.

Alcardo van Graan (2012 – Ajax Cape Town vs. Manchester United)

Alcardo van Graan’s time at Ajax Cape Town was turbulent to say the least, but he left the Urban Warriors faithful with one particularly memorable moment.

The late substitute scored a stunning goal when Manchester United visited Cape Town Stadium in 2012. What was already an unlikely occasion becomes even more remarkable when factoring in the struggles he endured at Ikamva.

“I had a good season the previous year at Milano [2010-11]… I was in the Ajax academy a few years back [and Ajax then brought him back]. The head coach that scouted me, Foppe de Haan, actually [then] left for Holland,” van Graan says.

A tough first season under Maarten Stekelenburg followed, with van Graan having to settle for a fringe role in the team. Khama Billiat and Terror Fanteni led the line at his expense.

Van Graan felt his luck turning during the following pre-season, as he found himself in good nick in front of goal. The visit of his boyhood favourites, the Red Devils, beckoned on Saturday, 21 July.

“We had a training session on the Friday at Cape Town Stadium, which I came late [to], I think. We started at 9AM and I left Stellenbosch at 6AM already, because I had to pick two players up on my way to Cape Town, James Okwuosa and Clint Julius,” van Graan recalls.

“I believe I was [going to be] in the starting XI. I don’t know if the coach changed his mind because he was in a bad mood, or what led to that.”

As it turned out, van Graan was on the bench come gameday. When he came on as a late substitute, he had little time to make his mark with the scores deadlocked at 0-0.

“It was actually a toss of the coin, I think, because it was between me and Brent Carelse [for who was going to come off the bench],” recalls van Graan.

“The coach looked at both of us. I can still picture how he looked at us. Brent shoved me in my rib to say: ‘Hey, I think it’s your time now to shine.’”

Remarkably, Carelse, the same player who had teed up Moriri’s goal against Barcelona, was unwittingly providing an assist of a different kind to van Graan.

In the 86th minute, van Graan’s first touch saw him audaciously backheel Billiat’s inswinging corner into the bottom corner of the net. He peeled away to celebrate in front of the sizeable crowd, followed by team-mates.

“I know we rehearsed it in pre-season or somewhere in a friendly. We did the exact same move and I scored like that against Vasco, but I didn’t picture doing that against United,” van Graan admits.

Bebe equalised for Manchester United and the spoils were shared. After the game, van Graan swapped shirts with Michael Carrick.

“I first asked Chicharito [Javier Hernandez] van Graan says. My wife is a huge fan of his. Chatting in the bus on the way to the stadium, she teased me [saying that] I must get Hernandez’s t-shirt.

“I asked Hernandez for his shirt first, but I think he had a problem with the translation. Then, I saw Shinji Kagawa coming along as well, but he also had a translation issue. I saw Michael Carrick still coming in the corridor, down the stairs there. He said his stuff was in the wash, so I said: ‘No, you have to turn back now!’

“He went to fetch his kit and we exchanged. I wonder if he still has my jersey.”

Van Graan was still unable to cement a starting spot at Ajax and dropped down the leagues in the years that followed. He now has a SAFA/CAF C-License and coaches privately at Curro Sitari Independent School in Somerset West, as well as at a nearby estate.

Sibusiso Vilakazi & Percy Tau (2018 vs. Barcelona)

Barcelona returned to South Africa in 2018 to honour the late Nelson Mandela’s would-be centenary celebrations. It was a smoother ride this time around for the Blaugrana, but Sundowns refused to give up without a fight.

Bangaly Soumahoro and Hlompho Kekana gifted Barcelona a goal apiece when they gave the ball away in dangerous areas with poor passes. Ousmane Dembele and Andre Gomes profited with a Luis Suarez strike in between ensuring Barcelona were 3-0 up before the Brazilians began to work their magic.

In the 76th minute, Vilakazi timed his run perfectly to get in behind the defence and poke past Jasper Cillessen.

Percy Tau, whose pass unleashed him, deserves credit in equal measure for that ball and the marauding run which preceded it. Tau’s skill was on display in abundance that night, including in a superb piece of footwork which embarrassed Andre Gomes.

After his assist for Sundowns against Barcelona, he would go on to pick up another just over a year later against Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League while in Club Brugge colours — this time for Emmanuel Bonaventure Dennis.

Patrice Motsepe has admitted that the COVID-19 pandemic forced Sundowns to put on hold plans to once again host a major European club.

Sooner or later, more South African players will surely have the chance to show off their skills on home soil against the world’s very best.

RELATED STORY: Steve Lekoelea: The man haunted by the PSV ‘what if’

By Leonard Solms

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