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Hlongwane's ambitions beyond boring big three

Bongokuhle Hlongwane wants more than the tidy, regular packages offered by the big three local teams. His gutsy move is reminiscent of local legends like Lucas Radebe and Benni McCarthy
Thu, Jan 20, 2022

PHOTO: Maritzburg United Twitter

Bongokuhle Hlongwane’s decision to move to the United States and not the traditional big three clubs in South Africa is being downplayed.

You’d be hard pressed to find a young striker growing up in the Midlands with ambitions much loftier than signing for Kaizer Chiefs, Orlando Pirates or Mamelodi Sundowns these days – they don’t make them like the old generation anymore. And the local clubs are guilty of this, too.

Maritzburg United, which announced earlier this month that the 21-year-old was leaving the Premier Soccer League to join Minnesota United FC when the Major League Soccer (MLS) transfer window opens next month, have a well-documented history of selling to their rivals, that’s just what they do. For them it is about survival in the topflight.

Sundowns, usually, come knocking with bags of cash for their best players hellbent on not taking no for an answer… and they get what they want, eventually. Now and again it’s Pirates and sometimes Chiefs, when they have money to spend.

Why say no? It’s business. The clubs walk away with a transfer fee that keeps them afloat and the player improves his salary package – everybody wins.

But Hlongwane wants more, even if it is via America, a league that has been more famous for luring super stars winding down their careers after hitting the big time in Europe – think David Beckham, Thierry Henry, David Silva, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney, Didier Drogba and the great Andrea Pirlo.

The young Bafana Bafana striker had interest elsewhere abroad and perhaps a year from now he could have gone from the PSL to Belgium, France or Spain.

With his appetite for success, Hlongwane couldn’t wait, having made it clear according to Maritzburg chairman Farook Kadodia that “he doesn’t want to go to a local club” , which is a rare outcome in SA.

Hlongwane has shown the kind of determination that has been lacking from his compatriots and that trend has come under heavy criticism from ex-players like Benni McCarthy, who not so long ago was dismayed that Percy Tau had cut his stint in the English Premier League short for a big pay day in Egypt with Al Ahly.

McCarthy, probably South Africa’s most famous export to Europe along with Lucas Radebe, encouraged players to dream big and protect the reputation of the PSL. Not many might see it that way because Hlongwane has gone from Maritzburg, a selling club, to the MLS, a league which isn’t quite at the level of England, Spain, Germany or France, but is still credible as a steppingstone for a young player.

But that he rejected the chance to make the more common step up in the local game and packed his bags and headed straight to Minnesota should be applauded. It’s the kind of move that gave SA the Radebe, McCarthy, Quinton Fortune, Aaron Mokoena and Steven Pienaar we know today.

We can’t predict how Hlongwane will adapt to the culture shock he is about to experience, but if he sticks to his guns the same way he did in telling Maritzburg that he had no desire to join any of the big three clubs when offers were flying in, he should excel.

Covid-19 has almost robbed this league of prominent scouts looking our way to take SA’s best talent abroad – they preferred cheaper young players who were soon out of contract from some of the best football academies in their neck of the woods.

Again, not a lot of people will share this sentiment, but Hlongwane has kicked the door wide open. Pity we missed Afcon and the World Cup to show that there's more players of Hlongwane's calibre in SA.

The majority will probably end up at Chiefs, Sundowns and Pirates when they should aim for the stars, like Hlongwane.

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