Johannesburg - None of us ever thought it could get as grand as it did with Hlompho Kekana. Back then we were just excited to have one of our own playing in the country’s elite league.
It was the era of the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) and top flight football appeared to be the preserve of those out in Johannesburg.
The idea that anyone from any of our villages in Zebediela could crack the big time seemed way too far-fetched.
But then Jack ‘Power’ Ledwaba made it and village boys in this part of the country began to dream.
Ledwaba turned out for Kwikot Benoni in 1984 and I vividly remember the pride we all felt. I was about 10 then and was a big fan of Moroka Swallows. But Kwikot Benoni suddenly became my other team as it did for just about everyone in the sprawling village of GaRakgwatha in Zebediela, Limpopo (back then it was called Lebowa out in the Northern Transvaal).
During that particular season, a local soccer magazine published a team picture of Kwikot Benoni as its centre spread and just about every household in our village had that poster up on their walls. Power was our pride and joy.
I remember him coming back home during the festive season to play in the local tournaments for his former club Rakgwatha Real Sweepers and us young ones jostling just to touch him.
Power playing for Kwikot Benoni got our village to dare to dream and it was not surprising then that a few years later, Alex Barnes Bapela, who lived in a section of GaRakgwatha called Sengwene, having played for United FC, turned out in the paid ranks with Mahwelereng Real Rovers.
He later made it big with Sundowns.
Hlompho is not from GaRakgwatha, but he is our homeboy alright, hailing as he does from just over the Nkumpi River in Moletlane in a section called GaMogotlane.
I was already long in the soccer journalism field when Hlompho turned professional and did not have the same excitement as I did with Power and later Barnes both of whom I knew personally and whose homes I also knew.
But I was quietly delighted that there was yet another one from home making it in big time football.
I remember how happy I was when Hlompho was crowned the SuperSport United player of the season at a ceremony in Centurion and spent a significant time that evening speaking to him for an interview.
I was immediately struck by his single-mindedness and focus. Tlou Tebele, as we call the Kekanas in our part of the world, struck me as being different from most of the young players I’d engaged with.
To my shock, he was immediately shipped out of Gavin Hunt’s team and joined Bloemfontein Celtic where his incredible work rate on the field shone through.
His move to Sundowns was not surprising and his move up the ranks of the Brazilians’ fold told the story of a young man with lofty goals and a willingness to graft to achieve them.
Unsurprising then that he went on not only to become the club’s captain but that he helped them to the kind of glory he did. It actually is a pity that Kekana leaves Sundowns not having won the MTN8 title.
👆 𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐞𝐧𝐝 𝐨𝐟 𝐚𝐧 𝐄𝐫𝐚: Hlompho Kekana has parted ways with Mamelodi Sundowns after 10 years with the club.— SuperSport 🏆 (@SuperSportTV) November 11, 2021
Here’s a look back at some of his best goals for Sundowns 👏 pic.twitter.com/G0hcZOteDQ
And that he was not part of the team that lifted the one trophy that has been eluding the all-conquering team in yellow and royal blue speaks to an illness of the local game. Many of our coaches equate being over 30 as being finished as a player. Sure, Manqoba Mngqithi and Rulani Mokwena will justify their not using Kekana by pointing at the fact that the team has been winning without him.
But when a player has been as loyal, influential and so committed to a club and still as fit as Hlompho is, you’d think that the least that can be done is to give him the occasional run in some games.
When the possibility of capturing the elusive MTN8 presented itself, you’d think that the club would have been gracious to their long-serving skipper and found a way to include him in the squad
But then again, as Hlompho said in his farewell speech, “football has a way of not giving us what we hope for”.
And he is not feeling sorry for himself for not having won the MTN8. That failing is but just a minor blip on an otherwise incredibly successful career that has served to inspire many young boys from his home village and district.
Captain my Captain! Hlompho Kekana, what an honour to have had the opportunity to work with you. Thank you for being one of the greatest people in the football community. pic.twitter.com/dOiGQl5sQV— Pitso Mosimane (@TheRealPitso) November 12, 2021
Not only that though, for Hlompho was a top class international who had made an indelible mark with his club and country.
Many players have taken to trademark long range attempts at goal thanks to my homeboy’s thunderbolt goals that brought Sundowns and Bafana Bafana delight.
At about 36-years-old, he does not have a lot of football left in him. But whichever club he joins will do well to give him a run on the field for they are sure to benefit from his impeccable reading of the game and leadership qualities.
And you can bet he still has a few goals from range left in him.
Hlompho has served the game, and Sundowns in particular with rare distinction. And whichever club that he joins will do well to appreciate that they have a legend in their midst, and should use his experience well.
Thanks to Hlompho’s exploits, Zebediela has seen numerous players make it in the elite league no doubt inspired by seeing a boy from a village they know shining as bright as he did.
It is a reality we wouldn’t have thought of back in the 1980s before Power Ledwaba joined Kwikot Benoni. Even then, we just thought it was great to have one of us playing up there. That we could have him being a superstar and great achiever as Hlompho was with Sundowns didn’t even cross our minds.