Hlompho Kekana responds with a bemused look to the question of whether he has ever thought about quitting Bafana Bafana. He has, after all, been given limited game time in the senior national team, despite bossing the domestic league in his position.
South Africa’s “Mr Consistent” has been nominated for the PSL’s Footballer of the Season award for the past three campaigns. He lost out every time.
That’s not the only snub the Mamelodi Sundowns’ midfielder has had to deal with. The 33-year-old has just 17 Bafana caps to his name despite being ever present on the squad list.
Even though he offered his club leadership, muscle and intelligence in their march towards the 2016 CAF Champions League title, his experience on the continent has been overlooked when it comes to national duty.
“I have never thought about quitting the national team because of the love I have for the game and the things I want to achieve in football before I retire,” says Kekana.
Whether he will be asked to express his love for the game on the pitch today, when South Africa take on Nigeria in a crucial Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) Group E qualifier at FNB Stadium, is to be seen. But Kekana is not overly concerned about that.
“Playing for my national side is one of the things I set out to achieve in my career. Being called up is an honour. It’s an opportunity to represent the people who have supported me since I was young. It has been a dream for me to be here. I hope I will deliver and contribute to the national team whenever I am given a chance.”
Some of his Bafana Bafana team-mates aren’t as patient as he is. Kamohelo Mokotjo even gave up ever playing for Bafana by taking Netherlands’ citizenship in frustration after being overlooked for a place in the highly contested central midfield. May Mahlangu, Tokelo Rantie and serial offender Thulani Serero have also given the national team the middle finger for one reason or another.
Mokotjo has since repented for his desertion and has gone on to play ahead of Kekana. But the man from Zebediela never complained, he just knuckled down and kept smiling.
“My love for Bafana Bafana has never been affected by their decisions. My love for the national team is strong. When you love something, you have to make sacrifices for it. I have been in the game too long and I know what it takes to be in this game this long. I have always been patient, waiting for my time and chance,” says Kekana.
“I have learnt over the years that you have to wait for the right moment. I don’t take anything to heart. There are a lot of things that I have achieved in my career. Those achievements motivate me to look forward to the next challenge. I am playing the game that I love, why should I complain?”
‘Football is my life’
The Sundowns skipper’s personality is in stark contrast to the role of enforcer and thug that he plays on the field. Off the pitch, Kekana is a gentleman with an ever-present smile and a jovial demeanour. While this personality is terrible for his job, it’s essential for him to survive his numerous snubs.
“An opportunity has to come for one to grab it. If the opportunity comes, I will play. I have always wanted to play football and that’s what I do best. Football is my life and representing my country is the highest honour. I’ll always be available, no matter what,” says Kekana.
With injuries ruling out Bongani Zungu, Dean Furman and Mokotjo, coach Stuart Baxter is likely to give Kekana an opportunity to lead Bafana in the midfield against the Super Eagles. “We’re going to give a performance that we have never given. This is a match that we really want to win. It’s important that we get three points, especially since we are playing at home,” says Kekana.
The Nigerians will no doubt come with guns blazing after having suffered their first loss ever to South Africa in Uyo last year. So we should expect to see an all-out war at FNB Stadium with both teams wanting to secure Afcon qualification before the last round of qualifiers.
As things stand, the Super Eagles are at the summit of Group E with nine points from four matches. Bafana are just a point behind them in second place, with Libya and Seychelles staring down the barrel.
“We need to minimise Nigeria’s strength because they are a team that can really hurt us when they have the ball. We have prepared well for this match and the guys are buzzing to play for the team and the country. We owe it to the country to do well,” says Kekana.