Undoubtedly, a picture is worth a thousand words! When Anele Ngcongca left Belgian giants Racing Genk in 2016, there was a double-page spread picture of him in the local newspaper, Het Belang Van Limburg.
That season, after almost a decade of service at the club, was the culmination of an enviable love affair between a boy from a township called Gugulethu and the fans of The Smurfs, as the club is affectionately known.
Despite the fact that they saw less of Ngcongca in the starting 11, the club’s fans were still as much in love with him as they had been when he first trotted onto the turf of the Luminus Arena as a fresh-faced youngster straight from the NFD; second division in South Africa.
As an unknown who had never tasted topflight action even in his homeland, Ngcongca had the insurmountable task of winning the hearts of Genk’s hard-to-please enthusiasts. In any case, they would have been forgiven for doubting the little-known kid from a township they had never heard of.
But that double spread image in the newspaper, an honour rarely granted to any player, was a firm nod in Ngcongca’s direction: his job was done. And it was a job well done.
Justifiably, his courtship of Genk’s fans had been a success, and he had deservedly carved his way into their hearts. Before his arrival, the club – one of the richest in Belgium – had gone 12 seasons without any silverware in their trophy cabinet.
LEAVING GENK WAS EMOTIONAL
“It was emotional leaving. Genk will always be my second home. I made so many memories there. They were the ones who gave me a chance, and I won everything in Belgium,” Ngcongca told FARPost a few months before passing on in November 2020.
The former Bafana Bafana international star had a decorated stay at Genk, winning the 2010/11 Jupiler Pro League, lifting the Belgian Cup in 2009 and the Belgian Super Cup in 2011. The love affair between him and Genk had brought silverware, but it was not the main reason that fans were so smitten with him.
Of course, the double-spread picture in the paper was telling. Instead of putting a picture of Ngcongca lifting any of the trophies he won with the club, which he also captained, it instead put a snap of him with the Andre Dumont Coal Mine in the background. The old mine, the nerve centre of life in a town where most residents are blue-collar workers, is a full 500 metres from the Luminus Arena, where Ngcongca made his bread and butter.
“Genk is a city where people work hard in the mines and fans found the same spirit in Anele’s way of playing,” says Genk volunteer Paul Vantuykom, who shared a picture of the nicely framed double page with FARPost. Years later, it still hangs in his living room. “The picture is a reflection of Anele’s character as a player,” Vantuykom adds.
The man who put together that spread, Marnik Geukens, a layout editor at Het Belang Van Limburg, says he knew exactly what he was doing.
NAMED IN GENK’S TEAM OF THE DECADE
An image of Ngcongca, the tireless footballer who covered every blade of grass on the pitch, superimposed on a mine that was closed in the early 80s, was sure to touch the hearts of the people of Genk. It was a sad farewell to two things that captured perfectly who they were.
“A photographer and I decided to put this together on a coalmine because we felt it would resonate with the people of Genk,” he explains. “They loved Anele, and they didn’t want him to go. He was one of them and carried the same spirit as the mineworkers in Genk,” he adds.
A team comprising of Thibaut Courtois, Kevin De Bryune, Kalidou Koulibaly, Wilfred Ndidi and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic would have enough firepower to put fear into any team in the world. Yet, it is amongst those names that Ngcongca found himself when he was named in Genk’s team of the decade.
For Vantuykom, who still remembers cooking the former Mamelodi Sundowns fullback’s favourite pasta, salad and chicken as he acted as a minder for him and other African players, Ngcongca still remains a cut above the rest. As a defender, he might not have had the swagger of his Manchester City pal De Bruyne, but to the ordinary folk in Genk, he remains a cult hero.
NEVER SHIED AWAY FROM STEPPING UP
“For me, Anele was the most consistent player in the last decade. I watched every home game in his nine years at the club. And he would play anywhere on the field when there was a gap. He played right back, centre back, left back and defensive midfield without complaining. Anele never shied away from stepping up each time there was a gap. He sweated it out for Genk. He fought. Sometimes as a lone soldier at the back,” says Vantuykom, who worked for Het Belang Van Limburg for 38 years.
While shuffling across the Genk backline might have seemed impressive to casual observers, those who were aware of his roots knew it was not the first time he had to show versatility. After all, when Ngcongca found himself under the watchful eye of Arsene Wenger in a two-week trial at Arsenal in 2006, the bright-eyed boy from FC Fortune made the unlikely switch from midfielder to right-back.
The legendary former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger saw something in him. It was all a miracle. One moment, he was one of the youngest footballers in the then-Mvela League. He was only 16, playing for FC Fortune.
A few seasons later, he found himself on a flight to London for a trial with the Gunners. When I look back, I see this boy from Gugulethu who had a dream. Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Ashley Cole and Freddie Ljungberg, who were at his boyhood club at that time, was another dream come true.
On what would have been his birthday, 21 October 2023, the club paid tribute to Ngcongca.
“November 23, 2020. A day when football became an afterthought due to the tragic death of Anele Ngcongca.”
“In total, ‘Jongie’ defended our blue-white colours 279 times. Only Thomas Buffel managed to collect more Genk caps. Every time with the same passion for football, occasionally with a dance,” read the tribute.
In his memory, the jersey he wore during the 2011 title match will now be on display.
Anele Ngcongca clearly held fond memories of Genk until his death. It was a club he joined a year after that unforgettable Gunners trial. His romance with that place, with those fans, continued, although he was now a continent away.
It was perhaps the tenacity of a coalminer that took him from the unfashionable South African first division to a top European club where he is still regarded like royalty.
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