He flashed that seemingly painful smile as his teammates handed him a framed and autographed AmaZulu shirt. Siyabonga Nomvethe, 41, clearly just wanted to get on with the match.
He has never been one for pomp and ceremony, you see. “Bhele” reluctantly played along when Usuthu made a big deal about his impending retirement, showering him with love in their last home match of the season against Black Leopards on 4 May.
That is how the man from KwaMashu has always been. From when he broke into the Premier Soccer League (PSL) 22 years ago as a third of that devastating trio at African Wanderers, all Nomvethe wanted to do was play. The limelight was never his thing, although his achievements were such that he could not hide from it.
It is perhaps fitting then that his final match as a professional, a consummate one at that, will be pretty obscure – away to an unsettled Bloemfontein Celtic in neutral East London with nothing much at stake for either side. Even then, bet on Bhele to deliver a polished, workmanlike performance as he endeavours to help his side to victory.
Bidding farewell to a legend
South African football is about to bid farewell to arguably one of the best footballers of the PSL era, a two-time South African Footballer of the Year and one of very few players to have played for all of the country’s traditional Big Three: Kaizer Chiefs, Orlando Pirates and Moroka Swallows.
In any other country, this would be big news. But just as he entered the scene somewhat obscurely via lowly Wanderers, Nomvethe will bid adieu to the professional scene far from the clicking cameras and imposing microphones.
I was just starting out as a reporter when Bhele broke into the scene alongside Sibusiso Zuma and Phumlani Mkhize – who formed a deadly trio for Abaqulusi – and like all the other journalists, I was fascinated by these unknowns who were taking the elite league by storm. Fortunately, fate allowed me to develop a “relationship” with Bhele from among that trio.
In late 1997, following his incredible showing for Wanderers in the league, Nomvethe received a call-up from Mich d’Avray to join the national Under-23 team on their trip to Norway. That squad was pretty established, with most of the players having been in the Under-20 side that had played at both the Africa and World Youth Championships earlier in the year.
To say Nomvethe was out of place in the group would be an understatement.
We got to sit next to each other on the plane to Oslo and, incredibly, we hardly said a word to each other the entire trip. My attempt at starting a conversation was met with a terse retort in isiZulu that meant I do not understand you. I’d spoken to him in Sotho, you see. Unable to converse in isiZulu, I tried to speak to him in English, but his blank face essentially said to me, speak to me in isiZulu or do not speak to me at all.
Fascinatingly, midway through the trip, he took out a grade 10 economics textbook to read. I knew better than to ask him how he understood what he was reading if he could not get what I was saying to him.
A humble legend, family man and prolific striker
That trip marked the beginning of a cordial relationship that saw Bhele never failing to greet yours truly. “Journalist,” he would always smile, willingly granting an interview. A lot of those interviews were to mark incredible milestones that would have seen many a player getting big-headed. But he remained humble to a fault, always crediting the achievements to the team.
At Loftus Versfeld on that glorious Saturday of 27 November 1999, after he scored against Sweden to help Bafana Bafana register their first win over European opposition, Bhele hardly took the glory and instead expressed delight at having “contributed” to the team’s success.
He was the same in Daegu, South Korea, in 2002 after his goal against Slovenia ensured we won for the first time at the Fifa World Cup. Prior to that, he had played an influential role in our qualifying for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. But even there, where he came off the bench to help Shakes Mashaba’s team register a famous 3-1 victory over Brazil, Nomvethe went about his business somewhat privately.
At the 2005 Gold Cup in America, one afternoon when Stuart Baxter gave the squad a day off training to go shopping in Houston, Texas, Bhele again stood out from the rest. As his teammates went about buying themselves tech gadgets, fancy clothes and sneakers, he cut a lone figure going into kiddies’ shops. I could not help but follow him, keen to understand just why he was not going with the crowd.
“Journalist,” he said, “I have just become a father now and I need to get stuff for my child. I cannot be buying fancy stuff for myself.”
He left the shop with a bagful of children’s clothes. The smile of contentment that flickered across his face told the story of a young man at peace with transitioning into fatherhood.
Not that he couldn’t afford to buy himself fancy stuff. After all, he was a Europe-based player at the time, his massive talent and incredible work ethic having secured him a lucrative contract in the Italian Serie A. Nomvethe’s career has also seen him turn up in the Swedish and Danish leagues. He was a league champion in both countries.
Having previously turned out for Chiefs and won the PSL Footballer of the Year award with them, expectations were that he would rejoin Amakhosi on his brief return from Europe in 2006. But he opted for Pirates instead and had a short stint that had some suggesting he had seen better days. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Bhele went back to Europe and had a great three-year spell with Aalborg BK, during which he won the Danish Superliga and even scored a penalty against Manchester City in a Uefa Cup game.
Flying close to the league with the Dube Birds
He later came back home and joined Moroka Swallows. In a team that most described as a “retirement village”, with no one tipping them to do much, he played an instrumental role in getting the Beautiful Birds painstakingly close to a league championship triumph.
That season, Swallows finished second behind Pirates, with the league title fight going down to the last day of the campaign. Bhele’s contribution was so immense that the then 34-year-old cleaned up at the PSL end-of-season awards ceremony. Bhele was named Footballer of the Year, Absa Premiership Player of the Season and Players’ Player of the Season. He also bagged the Lesley Manyathela Golden Boot for his 20 league goals.
He flashed that seemingly painful smile as he went up to the podium repeatedly to collect his gongs. The media attention he received afterwards took him out of his comfort zone. But he was a much more mature player than the young lad who had shut me out on the plane en-route to Norway 12 years earlier. The interview he gave me then was lengthy and full of meat.
It was in the season of Swallows’ relegation thereafter that one really got to see the consummate professional that is Nomvethe.
As Swallows stumbled about from match to match, struggling to put together positive results, his work ethic never waned and he continuously pushed to try and get that all important goal – the fact that his thirtysomething-year-old legs had had it notwithstanding.
During the play-offs against Jomo Cosmos and Black Leopards, when talk of his impending departure from the club surfaced, he flatly refused to discuss it, focusing instead on the job at hand and expressing his commitment to the Swallows cause.
He was a dejected figure deep in the bowels of the Dobsonville Stadium when Swallows’ demotion was confirmed, even though he was guaranteed to remain in the elite league because of the many clubs interested in his signature, even at his age.
Siyabonga, Bhele Nomvethe
That he ended up at his home club AmaZulu is now common knowledge and his exploits for an Usuthu side that has generally struggled have served to confirm his status as a true PSL legend.
He may never have won the Premiership title, but there can be no denying that Siyabonga Eugene Nomvethe is one of the best players to have ever graced the PSL fields. He is, in any case, the PSL’s leading all-time top scorer with 123 goals.
And his retirement after the match against Celtic on Saturday 11 May will leave the local game all the poorer. But for those of us who have had the privilege of not only watching him play but also interacting with him, we can only say siyabonga. Siyabonga Nomvethe… Siyabonga Mtembula, mavele nhlenhle, wena ongathixo siya emntwini. Thank you for putting a smile on our faces.