The day Chiefs stumbled on Sweswe …and passed on a young Billiat

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If Bobby Motaung and Ace Khuse had not gone to watch Knowledge Musona and Khama Billiat play in a curtain raiser in Harare in 2009, Kaizer Chiefs would never have signed Thomas Sweswe.

And if one General, who marshalled the Amakhosi midfield for years, Tinashe Nengomasha, had not made his way into the Dynamos dressing room that fateful afternoon at Rufaro Stadium, the Zimbabwean side’s players would not have known they were being watched by South African football royalty.

To add to that, if little Billiat weighed a few more kilos, could he have also been snapped up that afternoon, just in time for the 2009/10 season?

Imagine the mayhem the Warriors’ terrible twins – Musona and Billiat – would have caused if they had both arrived in Naturena that winter.

If… Football, like life, is a series of what ifs. Sometimes luck goes certain players’ way and fate smiles upon them but sometimes the opposite happens.

That afternoon in the Sunshine City, with the sweat barely dry on his body after toiling to impress Motaung and Khuse, Billiat perhaps wondered why the footballing gods had turned their backs on him. Sweswe, on the other hand, was counting his blessings. He still does. A miracle had happened in those 90 minutes at Rufaro Stadium and he was about to swap Dynamos’ blue and white for Chiefs’ gold and black. 

“Musona was playing for an academy (Aces Youth Academy) in the first division and I was at Dynamos at the time. I remember seeing ‘BobSteak’ and Ace at the hotel where we were camping. They were with Nengomasha, whom I knew from school. He told me they had come to see Knowledge, but they would also watch the Dynamos game,” says the man nicknamed ‘Rambo’ after Hollywood action movie star, Sylvester Stallone.

The former Zimbabwe youth internationals – Musona and Billiat – were playing in the unfashionable first division and were curtain-raising for the big boys.

Harare had been meant to be a pit-stop for Motaung and Khuse, who were on their way to watch Gilbert Banda, a centre-back plying his trade for Highlanders, Dynamos’ fierce Bulawayo-based rivals.

But Nengomasha, who spent over a decade breaking up opposition attacks for Chiefs, convinced them there was a sensational teenager that had never even tasted action in the Zimbabwean topflight. Mamelodi Sundowns had missed out on this gem and Nengomasha insisted it was important to capture the 19-year-old before the Chloorkop giants woke up from their slumber.

“I had kept an eye on Knowledge Musona, and they wanted to fly out to Bulawayo to watch a different player, but I told them there was a gem of a player who had recently been to Sundowns for trials,” says Nengomasha.

He remembers vividly how the colossal Sweswe paraded his strength, leadership and aerial ability that afternoon. He was simply the rock upon which the DeMbare defence was built that term. Statistics also backed that up as the Harare giants had conceded the least number of goals – 8 – in the opening 15 fixtures of that campaign. They had also gone as far as the semi-final of the CAF Champions League with Sweswe one of their most consistent players.

“Thomas played really well that day, his experience from playing in the Champions League and for the national team worked for him,” recalls Nengomasha, who enjoyed 324 PSL appearances for the Soweto giants.

The man who missed out on that golden Naturena opportunity, Banda, confirms he followed the developments with keen interest.

“I know Kaizer Chiefs were interested in me. Bobby Motaung had called me a few times and told me they would come and check me out in Bulawayo. But they ended up not coming. I later learnt that Thomas Sweswe ended up going. I missed out on a beautiful opportunity,” Banda, who is now based in Johannesburg, says.

In any case, the retired former Highlanders captain, Banda, who at some point played with Sweswe at the Bulawayo giants, was unfit to showcase his abilities.

“I had picked up an injury that time in the CHAN while playing for the national team so they wouldn’t have seen me play even if they had come,” Banda adds.

Almost 11 years later, Sweswe reminisces that life changing encounter as though it happened yesterday. They were playing the then defending champions, Monomotapa FC.

“I played my normal game, I didn’t try too hard or else I’d have messed up,” he says.

After a stint with Manning Rangers in the 2004/05 season, Sweswe, who named the first of his two sons after Siyabonga Nomvethe, had learnt some valuable lessons that guaranteed him a smooth exit from Dynamos.

“I played for Manning Rangers when I was about 23 and learnt quite a few lessons there. My contract with Dynamos had a clause which stipulated that the club would let me leave for free if there were offers from outside the country,” he explains.

That liberating clause came in handy when a South African suitor came knocking for the services of the big defender. It left Dynamos no room to try and squeeze out a few Rands from Amakhosi.

“There wasn’t much to negotiate, and I was literally on the plane to Johannesburg the following afternoon to sign with Chiefs,” he says.

Even though Chiefs had their man, they remained tight-lipped on the transfer for a while. The vultures were always circling, and the Phefeni Glamour Boys felt their new prized possession might be snatched from their grasp. At this point, Billiat was now a footnote in Chiefs’ transfer business for that pre-season.

Over a decade later, Sweswe is a retired stalwart and Billiat is finally having his dance at Amakhosi. But back then, the roles were reversed, as Khuse and Motaung went for the sturdy defender instead of the pint-sized attacker.

Thrust into the limelight at Chiefs, Sweswe did not lose sight of who he was, bringing his family to Jozi while taking a young Musona under his wing.

“Thomas is a family man. He knew what he wanted to achieve. He came with his family; so, his focus was the game and nothing else. But what touched me the most was how his wife would cook for Knowledge every day. They were staying in the same complex,” Nengomasha says.

Chiefs’ scouts had snapped up Sweswe not only for his control in the heart of defence but also for showcasing physical capabilities. But Siphiwe Tshabalala remembers how it was this strength that made him a subject of humour in Chiefs’ dressing room. 

“He finished all the socks at Chiefs because of his big calves. Our socks were rotated, so after Thomas had worn several of them, they were not fitting. We then discovered that whenever genges (a name Tshabalala called Sweswe) wore the socks, they became too big for anyone else because of his big calves. They ended up allocating him his own socks,” Tshabalala laughs as he relates that story.

Nengomasha and a man who slotted in well alongside Sweswe in the heart of the Amakhosi backline, Dominic Isaacs, also can’t get over his ability to damage socks. Isaacs, who spent 4 seasons at Naturena, further describes Sweswe as the true embodiment of a team player.

“Although we were competing for the same position, there was no animosity between us. In fact, it was the opposite. Luckily, we ended up playing together. He’s a fantastic guy and we’ve remained in contact,” adds Isaacs, who joined the Soweto giants from Ajax Cape Town in 2008.

Exactly 8 years after he left Naturena for Bidvest Wits, Sweswe admits that he has not fared badly for a man who ended up at one of South Africa’s most successful clubs by accident.

As he sits at the top of the table at the Footballers’ Union of Zimbabwe (FUZ), Sweswe says his duty is to make sure that the likes of Billiat, the toast of Zimbabwe’s football at the moment, make hay while the sun shines. Football is, after all, a relatively short career.

“Kaizer Chiefs changed my life, I live in my own house, I drive my own cars because of that opportunity. I want a boy in Mufakose (a high-density suburb in Harare) to know that their chance will come someday. And when it does, they must grab it with both hands,” says the FUZ secretary general.

Nengomasha is proud to see how his camp roommate during their time at Chiefs has become so passionate about safeguarding the welfare of football stars.

“He doesn’t want to see a player like Khama Billiat, for instance, repeat the same mistakes he made. I’m glad I’ve been a part of his beautiful journey,” says Nengomasha.

While for Billiat, the dream of a career at Chiefs ended before it had begun, Sweswe felt like he was sleep walking into a football fairy tale.

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