Hot prospect eager to play world's best
Bafana Bafana fans have two things less to fret about after this week’s stalemate against Senegal. First, there is strong televisual evidence that May Mahlangu exists and, second, there is now no chance of his going native in Sweden.
The Helsingborg midfielder says there was never any danger of a defection. “Sweden’s national coach, Erik Hamrén, did contact my agent to see if I was interested, because I wasn’t being selected for South Africa,” Mahlangu said in Johannesburg recently.
“But my first thought was that I’m proudly South African—and that I don’t need to be in the Bafana squad to make my country proud of me.
Everyone in Sweden knows I’m South African and can see me doing great things. So it felt as good as playing for Bafana, even though I wasn’t wearing the jersey.”
In his official home debut in Durban, clad in the correct shade of yellow, Mahlangu showed glimpses of the qualities that have garnered him the Swedish league’s player-of-the-year award. He brings canny passing, acceleration and stamina to the Bafana midfield equation. The Teranga Lions robbed him twice, but on both occasions he raced half the pitch to recover possession. Andile Jali and Reneilwe Letsholonyane will battle to dislodge him from Pitso Mosimane’s chalkboard.
And Mahlangu needs every cap he can get: Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger rates him, but can’t sign him as he doesn’t yet qualify for a UK work permit. Mahlangu’s contract with Helsingborg expires at the end of 2013, so they’ll be tempted to cash him in this off-season. Villarreal, Feyenoord and Galatasaray are keen to invest.
“People can see May is ready to move,” he said. “I’ve done everything and won everything in Sweden and, while I would love to carry on here [South Africa], I think now it’s time for me to challenge the best in the world. Impossible is nothing.”
Mahlangu (23) has a big voice for a small man, and regularly refers to himself in the third person. He can sound like the offspring of a self-help book and a sportswear commercial. But he has earned the right to deploy a few clichés.
Both his parents died when he was 10 and his younger brother was nine. “You really need parents at that age. 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.”
That was in 2003 and the intrepid 14-year-old orphan from Embalenhle township soon won himself a place at the Kaizer Chiefs development academy.
But a year later, then youth coach Farouk Khan left Chiefs to found the Stars of Africa academy, and Mahlangu followed him. Khan, probably the country’s finest youth coach, became a second father to Mahlangu, as he is to many of his trainees.
Mahlangu still hangs out at Stars of Africa whenever he visits Jo’burg. The 40-odd trainees train at the University of Johannesburg sports campus, but the academy itself is a rambling orange house next door to a Rastafarian café off raucous High Street in Mayfair West.
When I parked across the street on my way to meeting Mahlangu, a local drug merchant welcomed me at my window: “What are you gonna have, boss?”
But inside the academy is a cocoon of security, camaraderie and fierce football ambition. “It was so important for me to have a home as well as an academy,” said Mahlangu. “When you don’t have that kind of environment, lots of things can affect you.”
In 2008 Helsingborg snapped up Mahlangu, then 19, and he spent two half-year stints on loan at Swedish lower-league sides. That decompression period was critical, but he still finds Swedish culture a little strange.
“People keep to themselves. You have to manage that and be strong mentally to cope. In South Africa we talk and share ideas, even if we don’t know one another, but not in Sweden,” he said.
“I just told myself, I’m here to work and play football and even if people don’t like me, they have to like what I’m doing. And I kept communicating with people like Farouk, who told me that if guys like Lucas Radebe have done it, you can follow in their footsteps.
“And you just can’t let your family down. Letting myself down would be one thing, but not my family.
“When I started, there was a little bit of racism,” he said. “But you manage that. So I got myself a pair of black-and-white boots to send a little symbolic message to Scandinavia about black and white being together. I didn’t want to explain it and let people know I’m thinking silently about racism. It was also motivational: I was putting pressure on myself to perform, by wearing unusual boots that drew attention to me.”
Mahlangu’s capacity for the unexpected has set him apart in Sweden, but he is a big fan of the Swedish league’s uniformity of system.
“In South Africa if you look at SuperSport, Santos, Pirates, Chiefs, you get four different styles of football,” he said. “In Sweden everyone plays the same style, the same as in Holland, and that means career opportunities for players. After last 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.”
He’s ready to follow suit. “I feel it’s time, if there’s interest, and if Helsingborg are happy with the offer. Everybody must be happy, because I want the doors to be open for ever.”