When Keagan Dolly signed for the French Ligue 1 side Montpellier HSC from Mamelodi Sundowns last week for €1.7-million, he became the 62nd South African footballer to be plying his trade in a foreign land this season.
That may sound like a lot but when you consider the calibre of the clubs and leagues that our players represent, you get a clear sense of the global reputation South African football currently possesses.
Steven Pienaar and Thulani Serero, the two brightest prospects overseas in recent years, have seen their stars wane. The former has made just 12 appearances in a difficult season at Sunderland in England’s top flight and the latter has dropped down the pecking order at Ajax Amsterdam, where he now plays most of his football for the second team and is looking for a transfer.
As for the rest of our footballers around the world, most play in obscure leagues such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Malta and Wales. Only Kamohelo Mokotjo, at Dutch outfit FC Twente, features regularly in a top European league.
This is why Dolly’s move carries more significance than just personal ambition for the 24-year-old. After playing an integral role in Masandwana’s remarkable campaign last season, Dolly, whether he likes it or not, is now this country’s primary football ambassador.
But is it fair to place that burden on the young man’s shoulders? It will be hard enough for him to cement a spot in the team that sits precariously one point above the relegation zone after losing seven of their last 10 matches and are now without a coach after Frédéric Hantz was sacked on Monday, without the extra expectations of South Africa on his shoulders.
According to Benni McCarthy, this country’s best-ever export, the added pressure is something Dolly must accept and use to his advantage. “It might not be fair but there is no escaping that Dolly is now representing all of us,” the former Uefa Champions League winner with FC Porto says.
“Any South African who takes the plunge to go abroad must be mindful of the responsibilities he has. I used that pressure as motivation. I wanted to be synonymous with my country and that was the highest honour I ever achieved.”
One of McCarthy’s former Bafana Bafana teammates disagrees and argues that the only person Dolly should be focused on is himself. Bongani Khumalo, the towering centre-back now with Bidvest Wits, understands what it’s like to feel the weight of a nation on his shoulders while abroad.
After starring in the 2010 World Cup, the then 24-year-old Khumalo joined English giants Tottenham Hotspur with all the promise of becoming a first-team regular. But injuries, a managerial change and several loan deals meant that Khumalo never once represented Spurs in the four years he was at White Hart Lane.
He is well placed to offer advice on the subject, not only to Dolly but also to the fans and media who will be scrutinising his every move in France.
“I appeal to reporters and social media pundits to just let him be. When I first moved to England, I had South African journalists offering to follow me with a camera and document my life over there. I felt that people wanted me to succeed for more than just football reasons.
“For me, where I came from never made a difference and I believe it is too much to put the whole of South African football on one player.”
Khumalo touches on the insecurity of our nation. Our athletic isolation and scarred history have contributed to a collective feeling that South African sports stars should occupy a much higher standing on the world stage. How often have you heard: “South Africa should be the best football team in Africa?”
Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, this dogmatic assertion persists.
A former Sundowns and South Africa under-20 teammate of Dolly’s, Siyanda Xulu, sides with McCarthy on this one, but he could perhaps be used as a cautionary example for Dolly. The defender, now struggling to cement a spot at Kaizer Chiefs, spent three seasons in Russia with FC Rostov where, he says, “the first thing people knew about me was that I am South African. It was what they called me: ‘Siyanda South Africa’. Every time I played well, I felt I was doing [so] for South Africa. If I played badly, I felt that I let my country down.”
It would be unfair to assume Xulu’s failures had anything to do with the extra pressures he placed on himself but it is clear he is not the same player he was when he first left our shores as he struggles to win Steve Komphela’s favour.
So, can Dolly shake off the nationalistic shackles and shine in France? On this, the verdict is unanimous.
“He has all the attributes to be an elite player, especially his pace, which is electric,” McCarthy says.
“He is still raw compared to the more polished European-based players,” Khumalo adds, “but once he develops the intellectual part of the game that comes from playing over there, he will be a real force and could potentially move up the ranks to a bigger club on the continent.”
He will need to develop off the field, too. McCarthy says that Dolly should find a French teacher and learn the language as quickly as possible. “Every country I played in I made learning the language my number one priority. That endears you to the fans and coaching staff and lets them know you’re not just using them as a stepping stone. Doors quickly open up when you can speak to someone in their own tongue.”
Dolly was a big fish in the comparatively small waters of the Premier Soccer League, where his club side enjoyed the run of the green last season. Now, with a struggling team in unknown territory, he will need to raise his game. Not only for himself, but also for the nation he represents.
Like it or not, Dolly is doing it for us all and his success or failure will leave an indelible mark on the history of South African football.