Undoubtedly, a picture is worth a thousand words!
When Anele Ngcongca left Belgian giants Racing Genk in 2016, there was a double page spread picture of him in the local newspaper, Het Belang Van Limburg.
That season, after almost a decade of service at the club, was the culmination of an enviable love affair between a boy from a township called Gugulethu and the fans of The Smurfs, as the club is affectionately known.
Despite the fact that they saw less of Ngcongca in the starting 11, the club’s fans were still as much in love with him as they had been when he first trotted onto the turf of the Luminus Arena as a fresh faced youngster straight from the first division in South Africa.
As an unknown greenhorn that had never tasted topflight action even in his homeland, Ngcongca had the insurmountable task of winning the hearts of Genk’s hard-to-please enthusiasts. In any case, they would have been forgiven for doubting the little-known kid from a township they had never heard of.
But that double spread image in the newspaper, an honour rarely granted to any player, was a firm nod in Ngcongca’s direction: his job was done. And, it was a job well-done.
Justifiably, his courtship of Genk’s fans had been a success and he had deservedly carved his way into their hearts. Before his arrival, the club – one of the richest in Belgium – had gone 12 seasons without adding any silverware to their trophy cabinet.
“It was emotional leaving. Genk will always be my second home. I made so many memories there. They were the ones who gave me a chance and I won everything in Belgium,” Ngcongca tells FARPost.
The former Bafana Bafana international had a decorated stay at Genk, winning the 2010/11 Jupiler Pro League, lifting the Belgian Cup in 2009 and the Belgian Super Cup in 2011. The love affair between him and Genk had brought silverware, but it was not the main reason that fans were so smitten with him.
Of course, the double spread picture in the paper was telling. Instead of putting a picture of Ngcongca lifting any of the trophies he won with the club he also had the honour of captaining, it put a snap of him with the Andre Dumont Coal Mine in the background. The old mine, the nerve centre of life in a town where most residents are blue-collar workers, is a full 500 metres from the Luminus Arena where Ngcongca made his bread and butter.
“Genk is a city where people work hard in the mines and fans found the same spirit in Anele’s way of playing,” says Genk volunteer Paul Vantuykom, who shared a picture of the nicely framed double page with FARPost. Years later, it still hangs in his living room.
“The picture is a reflection of Anele’s character as a player,” Vantuykom adds.
Clearly, the man who put together that spread, Marnik Geukens, a layout editor at Het Belang Van Limburg, knew exactly what he was doing. An image of Ngcongca, the tireless footballer who covered every blade of grass on the pitch, superimposed on a mine that was closed in the early 80s, was sure to touch the hearts of the people of Genk. It was a sad farewell to two things that captured perfectly who they are.
“A photographer and I decided to put this together on a coalmine because we felt it would resonate with the people of Genk,” he explains.
“They loved Anele and they didn’t want him to go. He was one of them and carried the same spirit as the mine workers in Genk,” he adds.
A team comprising of Thibaut Courtois, Kevin De Bryune, Kalidou Koulibaly, Wilfred Ndidi and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic would have enough firepower to put fear into any team in the world. Yet, it is amongst those names that Ngcongca found himself when he was named in Genk’s team of the decade.
For Vantuykom, who still remembers preparing the Mamelodi Sundowns full back’s favourite pasta, salad and chicken as he acted as minder for him and other African players, Ngcongca still remains a cut above the rest. As a defender, he might not have had the swagger of his Manchester City pal De Bruyne, but to the ordinary folk in Genk he remains a cult hero.
“For me, Anele was the most consistent player in the last decade. I watched every home game in his nine years at the club and he would play anywhere in the field when there was a gap. He played right back, centre back, left back and defensive midfield without complaining. He would never shy away from stepping up each time there was a gap. He sweated it out for Genk. He fought, sometimes as a lone soldier at the back,” says Vantuykom, who previously worked for Het Belang Van Limburg for 38 years.
While shifting across the Genk backline might have seemed impressive to casual observers, those that were aware of his roots knew it was not the first time he had to show versatility. After all, when Ngcongca found himself under the watchful eye of Arsene Wenger in a two-week trial at Arsenal in 2006, the bright-eyed boy from FC Fortune made the unlikely switch from midfield to right-back.
“Arsene Wenger definitely saw something in me and I’m grateful. It was all a miracle. At one point, I was one of the youngest footballers in Mvela. I was only 16 playing for FC Fortune. A few seasons later, I found myself on a flight to London (for a trial with Arsenal). When I look back, I see this boy from Gugulethu who had a dream. Even up to today, my mother and I always ask each other where I would I be in life, had it not been for football,” the 32-year-old says.
Ngcongca adds that rubbing shoulders with the likes of Ashley Cole and Freddie Ljungberg, who were at his boyhood club at that time, was another dream come true.
“Alexander Song was also there, and I kept asking myself if this was some sort of a dream because these were people I watched with keen interest on television. It was a defining moment in my career,” marvels Ngcongca.
Almost half a decade after he moved, he still has fond memories of Genk – the club he joined exactly a year after that unforgettable Gunners trial. His romance with that place, with those fans, continues although he is now a continent away.
“The people there still have respect for me and being in their team of the decade means a lot to me. I always felt the love but now since I’ve left, I see it was extraordinary,” he says.
After almost a decade and a half playing at the top level, Ngcongca looks back at his career with pride. It is perhaps the tenacity of a coal miner that took him from the unfashionable South African first division to a top European club where he is still regarded like royalty.
“I’m so proud that I left a mark at Genk. For a boy from Gugulethu to make it in Belgium and become the second in the club’s history for playing more games is a milestone. Having to captain them was such an awesome thing,” he says.
By Mthokozisi Dube