Former Orlando Pirates midfielder Thandani Bibo Ntshumayelo’s potential return to top-flight football could be a redemption story.
Many players have tried to return to the big leagues after time out or after their contracts with other clubs ended. Few succeed.
Ntshumayelo is trying for something more improbable by returning after a ban and two years away from football.
A random drug test in 2016, during his time at Orlando Pirates, found traces of cocaine in his system. He received a four-year suspension. After an appeal, this was reduced in July this year to two years by the South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport.
Soon after the announcement of his unbanning, Gavin Hunt, coach of log-leaders Bidvest Wits, invited him to train with the club, with the hope of reviving his once colourful career.
Ntshumayelo had been integral to Pirates’ central midfield;his ball-winning and passing ability the key factors of his game. At the age of 26, he was in his prime.
But will the player, having missed two years of competitive football, still be able to show the same prowess that earned him the move from SuperSport United to Pirates?
“That’s completely up to him. The ball is literally in his court now,” says his former agent, Tim Sukazi.
Sukazi, who had managed Ntshumayelo since he began his professional career nine years ago, says the player had special attributes.
“This is one player who was doubted by many people at the start of his career. I guess many people never understood his style of play but he proved them wrong,” says Sukazi.
“When the news of his banning broke, we were very devastated because we never saw it coming and he came to my offices on numerous occasions after that and I had to motivate him to look forward.”
Despite Ntshumayelo’s time off the field with potentially low fitness levels,Hunt still has faith in his former protégé.
“I’m helping him to get fit. I’m the one who gave him his professional debut and I have been in communication with him throughout the two years he was suspended,” said Hunt. “Everybody deserves a chance in life. Right now he’s training with us but I don’t want to talk much about that now.”
Ntshumayelo is a product of SuperSport United’s youth academy. He was promoted, on the advice of then coach Hunt, to the first team in 2009.
In his first season at United, he set the field alight and was part of Hunt’s three-time title winning side. He moved to Pirates in January 2012.
His former captain, Lucky Lekgwathi, with whom Ntshumayelo formed an acclaimed transitional defence-to-midfield understanding, believes he has learnt his lesson.
“He’s like a brother to me. He looks like someone who has learnt from his mistakes and is eager to change his life. We were together in Soweto recently, motivating school children and discouraging them against drug use … I was very impressed with the things he said to the kids.”
Lekgwathi, whose clean life off the field saw him play top-flight football until age 39, has also advised Ntshumayelo to choose his friends wisely.
With this help, and hard work, the 28-year-old could still have years of good football in him.