A wave of memory washed over me as I saw Bafana Bafana captain Ronwen Williams sink to his knees, head bowed after each saved a penalty.
It wasn’t just the weight of the moment, the electric tension of the looming semi-final that etched the scene into my mind. My gaze drifted back, years in the past, to an interview I conducted with ‘Ronza’, a fledgling captain then, his eyes glistening with unshed tears.
He’d just been handed the armband, the symbol of leadership, and yet, his celebration after every save was a deeply personal ritual. Kneeling, his gaze cast skyward, he’d explained the silent conversation with his brother, a passionate supporter snatched away too soon. Each save, each victory, was a tribute, an offering to the memory that fuelled his journey.
And so, here he was again, years later, the weight of a nation’s hope pressing down, his silent vow etched in every kneeling prayer. The image mirrored the raw emotion of that long-ago interview, transporting me back to the genesis of a dedication that now resonated on the grandest stage. It was a moment that transcended the game, a glimpse into the heart of a man, a captain, forever bound to his guiding star.
‘THAT’S ME SPEAKING TO HIM’
“Every time I achieve something, I look up to the sky. Even during penalty shootouts, you’ll see me uttering stuff. That’s me speaking to him. We’re in this together. As much as he is not here physically, I know he’s got my back. He is there watching over me every step of the way. Wherever he is, I know he is proud,” an emotional Williams tells FARPost.
Saturday 4 February 2024 would have been one of those days as he saved four penalty kicks to help Bafana Bafana progress to the semifinal of AFCON 2023.
His football journey bears the message that one must constantly dig in to overcome the hurdles one faces every day in the quest for glory. For many, the struggle is where to draw inspiration persistently. Of course, it was never straightforward for Williams, but the tragedy of losing a brother he dearly loved propelled him in his football career.
Former SuperSport youth coach Kwanele Kopo saw a boy full of promise recoil into a shell only to emerge with a more potent force. He recounts the day it happened. They had just arrived in Cape Town to play in the Bayhill Under-19 tournament when the news came through. Williams had to leave the squad and go home immediately. They would not see the youngster full of promise for another three months.
WHEN RONWEN WILLIAMS ALMOST GAVE UP FOOTBALL
“After he buried his brother, he didn’t want to return to the academy; he didn’t want to continue playing football. I phoned him daily, telling him the best he could do for his late brother was play football and do something he loved in his memory.
“It took three months to get Ronwen back at Supersport, and even then, he didn’t go straight into training, only doing so later on, but once he came into playing, he shot up, doing exceptionally well and after that season that he was promoted to the first team,” Kopo tells FARPost.
Forget that Sherwyn Naicker was ahead of him in the pecking order. The returnee Williams took no prisoners. He was unstoppable in his renewed resolve to succeed. Being the youngest of three kids, Williams looked up to his brother, and his death shattered him and made him want to quit everything.
But it took the advice of men who had known him since he joined Matsatsantsa at the age of 12 to change all that. The former SuperSport captain has held onto that vital piece of counsel till today. He had to use the heartrending tragedy as motivation to achieve higher goals. And he has done precisely that.
When he speaks of his relationship with Marvin, you know the bromance was uncommon. “He was the perfect big brother, always looking out for me. He loved me so much. I can proudly say he was my number one supporter.
MANAGED TO OVERCOME IT
“All his friends knew about me; he was so proud when I joined the academy, and when he moved to Joburg, he would come and watch my games. It was a huge loss, but I managed to overcome it and use it as motivation,” he says.
His mother, Hazel, reveals her boy has his brother’s tattoo on his hand. “Those boys were so close. Ronwen has a tattoo of Marvin on one of his arms,” she says.
Her advice to him was like SuperSport’s, just slightly put in different words. “I told him I didn’t think Marvin would be happy that he left his soccer because of his passing on. His death would have been why he quit his passion, and I told him his brother wouldn’t have wanted that,” she says.
Interestingly, Hazel could be why the footie star decided to pursue a career in the game. Unbelievably, she played soccer until five months after becoming pregnant with the Bafana captain. Clearly, the former Shutterproof Women FC striker understands football.
“I was very proud when he was appointed team captain, and I was confident he would lead by example…” she says.
For Kopo, Williams’ progress, 20 years after the day he joined Matsatsantsa’s academy, is satisfying. “At times, I look at him and get emotional thinking about where he comes from; it has certainly been a fulfilling journey. I hope his international career will do well. He still has to win more trophies and shine for Bafana,” Kopo says.
Interestingly, the Chippa United coach Kwanele Kopo, is so sure two seasons after he left for Mamelodi Sundowns; Williams is still the model used to encourage SuperSport’s academy kids. The 32-year-old won six trophies with Matsatsantsa and a further two with Masandawana.
In the 2022/23 term, he was crowned DStv Premiership Goalkeeper of the Season after keeping 18 clean sheets in 26 matches.
SuperSport CEO Stan Matthews is on record as saying the national team shot-stopper engraved his name on the club’s history books.
“Ronwen is a beloved son and legend of the club who has entrenched his place in the history books as the longest-serving and most capped player in the club’s history. It’s rare to find loyalty in football anymore – which makes our 18 years with Ronwen truly remarkable,” he said.
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