May Mahlangu has emerged as the joker in Bafana Bafana's Africa Cup of Nations pack. The Helsingborg midfielder's exquisitely cool finish against Morocco confirmed what many South Africans had already suspected – that he's well worth his star status in Sweden.
Coach Gordon Igesund is expected to retain Mahlangu in an attacking formation against Mali on Saturday night. The pacy little midfielder is not known for his defensive prowess, and Bafana's midfield may be outgunned if the fearsome trio of Seydou Keita, Samba Diakite and Samba Sow hit their straps.
But Mahlangu is worth the gamble. The team looks braver with him at its heart, and bravery saw them through to the quarterfinals.
In describing his golazo against Morocco, Mahlangu trumpets his temperament with unabashed pride. "It was just a great pass to me from Tokelo Rantie, and I was composed and relaxed. I put it in the right spot."
Mahlangu's confidence has been forged in adversity. Both his parents died when he was 10, and his younger brother was nine. "You really need parents at that age," he told me last year. "It was very, very hard. But, with the little money she had, my grandmother, Johanna Mahlangu, put us through school. Now I'm building her a house, and when I went home in December I bought tombstones for my parents. When I left Secunda for Johannesburg, I promised myself I would do that."
In 2004, the intrepid 14-year-old orphan won himself a place at the Kaizer Chiefs development academy. But soon after Chiefs' youth coach Farouk Khan left Naturena to found the Stars of Africa academy in Mayfair and Mahlangu followed him. It was a good call: he credits Khan for instilling his discipline and work ethic and, four years later, he was snapped up by Helsingborg.
After two loan seasons at lower league sides, he became a hit in the Allsvenska, winning a league and a cup double and the Swedish player of the year award last year.
Many locals were unconvinced about Mahlangu because of the humdrum quality of the Swedish league, which is not comparable in standard to Holland or even Belgium. But Mahlangu says Allsvenka's limitations are largely down to the youth of its players, with stars moving abroad as soon as they emerge. The Swedish style is consistent, effective and marketable, he says.
Headlines to be written
"In South Africa, if you look at SuperSport, Santos, Pirates, Chiefs, you get four different styles of football. In Sweden, everyone plays the same style, the same as in Holland, and that means career opportunities for players.
"After the 2010/11 season, the whole PSL sold just one player abroad – Thulani Serero. My team alone sold five players to bigger leagues in 2010. And, in the whole Swedish league, maybe 15 or 20 players were sold abroad."
Mahlangu's contract with Helsingborg expires at the end of the upcoming Swedish season, and he covets a move to France or Spain.
But first, there are Bafana headlines to be written. He is relishing the unity and harmony in the squad. "It all comes down to having leadership throughout the team," he says. "The coach told us that everyone has to fight for each other."
That's a well-worn phrase in footballese but, in the case of Bafana, it is starting to ring true. There is something notable happening in the fabric of any team who are capable of twice clawing their way back into a game, as they did against Morocco.
Needless to say, the mighty Malians will provide a sterner test of their temperament.
'A disgrace to Africa'
Meanwhile, the scandalous condition of the Mbombela Stadium pitch is threatening to become a PR disaster. Togo striker Emmanuel Adebayor branded the surface "a disgrace to Africa" after his side advanced to the quarterfinals with a gritty draw against Tunisia on January 30.
"To be honest with you, I'm very sorry, but it's a disgrace for our continent to be playing on this pitch when it's on the TV around the world," said Adebayor.
"Those people that watch the game in Europe, they will be sending SMSes to me tonight asking me, 'Are you playing in the bush or what?'"
The villain of the piece is a fungus that attacked the field's rye grass after the recent floods in the Lowveld.
The fungus killed the grass, leaving a swamp, and ground staff also allegedly added soil to the surface to absorb excess water, allegedly without the approval of CAF officials.
The result is an unsightly sandpit, with a comical explosion of soil marking every challenge. Attractive football is all but impossible on the Mbombela surface, and officials are dreading the semifinal scheduled to take place there on February 6.
Nations Cup local organising committee spokesperson Sipho Sithole could not be reached for comment on January 31 about the possibility of moving the semifinal to Rustenburg or Port Elizabeth. But it is unlikely that the game will be relocated at such short notice, given the implications for ticketing, transport and accommodation.
"You needed to have pitch experts on site right from the start to prevent this happening," said former 2010 World Cup chief competitions officer Derek Blanckensee, who worked with Fifa on the Mbombela pitch.
"During the World Cup we had the Sports Turf Research Institute here throughout. But this was also an extreme weather event, so nobody is really to blame."
He dismissed claims that the American rye grass mixture used for the pitch was unsuitable for the Nelspruit climate. "That type of grass is used in other hot climates, in Mexico and elsewhere, but you have to look after it.
"There's not a lot that can be done now," he said. "But it's a desso pitch, which means it's still playable, because it has artificial fibres that keep the surface stable. It just looks so bad."