Khama Billiat might never have been discovered if a groundsman at his primary school had not caught sight of him, all the way back in 1999, juggling a tennis ball.
Arifa Sumani, who doubled as a coach at Gwinyiro Primary School in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, was busy with his groundskeeping when he saw 8-year-old Billiat with the fluorescent yellow ball at his feet.
The would-be superstar was only in Grade 3 then, but he looked like he had the making of an exceptional player. There was something about the lad that charmed Sumani to cast his demanding work aside briefly, just to gaze at the kid.
With his tiny feet, the boy juggled the 2.70 inches ball meant to be smacked with a tennis racket with the poise and technique of a seasoned professional. He caressed it, taming an object that would have run wild on the feet of someone way older than him.
On that fine day in 1999, Sumani had just stumbled on Harare’s best kept secret.
“Billiat was a tiny, tiny boy but very talented. I remember the first day I saw him as he juggled a tennis ball during break time. His technique and composure were shocking. I engaged him instantly and the next thing he was playing in our school first team,” Sumani told Sunday Mail.
At that age, it was indubitable that the boy was something special. He was already a first team key player by the time he was 10. Little Billiat was the team’s lethal weapon and because he was tiny so much that the size of the soccer ball was almost half his height, the instruction to his teammates was to pass the ball into space. And each time they did, their diminutive forward did justice.
It’s no surprise that Billiat has gone on to sparkle in his decade-long career in the PSL, winning almost every prize on offer in South African football.
He has won three PSL titles with Mamelodi Sundowns, a Nedbank Cup, Telkom Knockout, a CAF Champions League and a CAF Super Cup.
Thousands have come to watch him lift those trophies into the air, knowing the role his magic feet played in the acquisition of that silverware.
Before he played in front of those fans in some of the most beautiful arenas in South Africa and the world, Billiat entertained the people of a high-density suburb called Mufakose. They grew to worship the ground their little hero walked on.
“We all knew Khama was special from an early age,” Memory Maphosa, a vendor who sells snacks outside Gwinyiro Primary school, tells FARPost. “As he played a ball made from plastic paper in these potholed roads the boy was just magic. At Gwinyiro they put him in the school’s first team when he was very young and the whole neighbourhood would go and watch the matches because with Khama in the team entertainment was guaranteed.”
With fame knocking on his door so early in his life, it was inevitable that Billiat’s schoolwork would suffer. All he wanted was a football at his feet and the classroom became a distraction.
“It was a struggle to get him to read through a simple English sentence, he wasn’t very keen on his schoolwork,” says Billiat’s former tutor, Eunice Dembera.
Because of his stature, Billiat has been underestimated a lot in his life. In fact, when Lloyd Chitembwe was Caps United’s coach, he found it hard to convince his bosses to sign the pint-sized prodigy. It didn’t help that the Harare giants had lost five senior players to PSL clubs.
“I first saw Khama Billiat in 2010 at a time when Caps United had lost several of its players to South African clubs,” Chitembwe tells FARPost. The Harare giants had just sold Nyasha Mushekwi, Method Mwanjali and Lionel Mutizwa to Sundowns while Oscar Machapa and Gilbert Mapemba were on their way to Moroka Swallows.
“Khama was just so small that some of my bosses at Caps United did not understand why I said, ‘Look, I want this boy.’ I am so blessed to have had sight of the boy when he started, what I saw then was pure talent, amazing ability with the ball,” adds the Harare City coach.
Billiat’s path from the dust of Mufakose to stardom has been an odd one. Unlike other great Zimbabwean gems exported to South Africa, he did not flourish in Zimbabwe’s domestic League before sides south of the Limpopo came knocking. In fact, only a few weeks before Ajax Cape Town snatched him, local giants Caps United were reluctant to pay a mere USD$2,000 (R34,000) for his services. Billiat, whose value is currently estimated to be R36 million, was at Aces’ Youth Academy at the time.
“Caps United bosses said no we don’t have that kind of money. The asking fee was reduced to USD$1,000 (R17,000) and still Caps United said no we don’t have. Then Khama begged one the Aces directors Nigel Munyati to train and play for Caps United without any money changing hands.
“And as fate would have it, the boy just played two games for us. Just before the start of the second game (the late) Edzai Kasinauyo came to me and said Ajax Cape Town wanted Khama on trials. Two weeks later we heard that the Urban Warriors had signed the boy,” says the Harare City coach.
DID YOU KNOW
Billiat made his debut in the South African Premiership just a day after celebrating his 20th birthday. It was an MTN8 quarter final tie between Ajax and Sundowns.
From such humble beginnings, Billiat has gone on to have one of the most decorated careers in the South African topflight. For the Western Cape side, he played 92 games on his way to 23 goals and 24 assists.
He then featured in 140 games for Sundowns, grabbing 47 goals and 43 assists. At his current club Kaizer Chiefs, he has played 54 games while helping himself to a dozen assists and a dozen goals.
With his trophy cabinet bulging, he is one of PSL’s most treasured assets, the man with magic feet whose dazzling runs and silky skills put bums on seats.
For young people in Mufakose, however, Billiat represents something entirely different – hope.
“I want to be the next Khama Billiat. I want to play football in South Africa before going to Europe where my dream is to play for Manchester United,” says Tinashe Nyakudya, a student at Billiat’s former school.
“When I am rich I also want to come back to the school just like what Khama did and donate foodstuffs as well as pay school fees for the children who will be here at that time.”
By Mthokozisi Dube