The day Henrik Larsson offered to pay Surprise Ralani’s salary in Sweden

“Bradley Ralani was at Kaizer Chiefs, but they didn’t want him, and we sent him to Sweden instead,” says Farouk Khan.

As you walk into Lena Verdica Ralani’s lounge in her Dunstan, Kimberly home, a signed Manchester United jersey immediately calls for your attention.

You need not be a football fundi to know it’s unique memorabilia. Absolute keepsakes stuff! The priceless frame and 2007 Man U kit are right in the living room corner on a tall table; you can’t even miss them.

Above it is a more miniature portrait of the boy who earned that irreplaceable shirt – Bradley Suprise Ralani.

It makes sense why Mama Lena, affectionately known as Sister Anne, has had to keep the picture in Kimberly when the recipient is 554,1 km away in Pretoria. It’s the perfect nostalgia piece that evokes memories of a journey well-travelled.

It often takes ‘Sister Anne’ to that day back in 2009 when Kagisho ‘Spakes’ Matile came to ask for her son to take him to some academy in Johannesburg. At that point, her son was working for the Department of Sports in Northern Cape.

The souvenir Ralani received from Larsson after a stellar season in Sweden

A former amateur footballer herself for the Kaizer Chiefs Supporters’ Club, she had watched her five-year-old son kick the ball with keen interest. Her husband, who owned an amateur club United Eagles in the mining town, often would be refereeing for the Under 10s. So, he would hold his boy’s hand, and each time the ball came close to him, he would stop it for him to kick it in any direction. The kit he would be wearing was so big that they had to strap it around his arms with rubber bands. None of that mattered, however. “I just enjoyed kicking the ball,” Ralani tells FARPost.

Even when he was old enough to turn out for Griquas [provincial team], she continued following his progress after being recruited by the late former Chiefs star Jacob ‘Pro’ Pilane.

She vividly remembers a day she was late for a Griquas game. “I was still by the gate when I heard people celebrating a goal; I told everyone around me that I was so sure my son had scored a goal. The moment I walked into the stadium, I saw kids surrounding him celebrating,” she tells FARPost.

One moment led to the other. But, like any other journey, there are those moments that have been pivotal. Some of those moments have demanded sacrifice.

In his case, it meant quitting a government job that paid him a monthly salary to go to a football academy. “I made it clear to him he was going to an academy, and he would not get paid,” Matile tells FARPost.

That academy stint came just a year after Chiefs released him from the Under 19 side, coached by Ace Khuse and the late Ryder Mofokeng.

“He was at Kaizer Chiefs, but they didn’t want him eventually, and we sent him to Sweden instead,” says Farouk Khan, who welcomed him at his Stars of Africa Academy.

Khan welcomed Ralani at Stars of Africa after Chiefs rejected him

Just a week after impressing at Stars of Africa, he happened to be playing in a friendly match. Unbeknown to him, there were scouts from Sweden following the proceedings.

“I scored two goals. I had an excellent game. They told Farouk they wanted me for Sweden, but he insisted he still wanted to polish me. The coach [Bo Nilsson] took my number, and he kept checking up on me,” the talented winger recalls.

Once Khan, a former Chiefs assistant coach, was done polishing the diamond in his hands, he exported it to Sweden, albeit for three months. Bo Nilsson, the same man who took May Mahlangu to Europe, was in charge of Helsingborg IF. Henrik Larsson, whose 242 goals in 315 matches saw Celtic fans nickname him ‘The King of Kings’, was winding up his playing career at his hometown club.

“I had a three months visa just so the club could see how I would fit in. I was training with Henrik Larsson, but he sustained a knee injury in a Uefa match,” Ralani says.

While training with Helsingborg, he would play competitively with a fourth-tier side IFK Hässleholm just to gain experience. At the end of his short stint, he returned to South Africa.

However, Nilsson had fallen in love with his game and was keen on signing him. Unfortunately, the club announced they were parting ways with him the following season. It was a massive blow for the Kimberly-born star’s hopes of a career in Europe.

A few weeks down the line, Larsson hung his boots in November 2009 and was handed a coaching job by Landskrona IP while Ralani trained to keep fit back at the academy in Johannesburg. Having played with Jabu Pule at Helsingborg, popularly known as The Red Ones, the man crowned Greatest Swedish Footballer of the last 50 Years in 2003, wanted the former Amakhosi ace in his new team.

Larsson initially wanted to sign Jabu Pule

“Larsson reached out to Bo Nilsson asking him to help him get Jabu Pule [now Mahlangu],” says Ralani. Bo Nilsson, who was instrumental at the start of Larsson’s career, had other ideas. He was very convinced he had a younger version of ‘Shuffle’. ‘I’ll bring you someone younger,’ was Nilsson’s answer.

Reluctantly, the two-time La Liga winner with Barcelona agreed, throwing a lifeline at Ralani’s desire to play in Europe.

“Just out of the blue, I got a call from Bo Nilsson. He asked if I wanted to return to Sweden because Henrik wanted a player. I wanted to go back and play football professionally,” he recalls.

He arrived in Landskrona, a city usually claimed to have been founded in 1413 by the King of Denmark – Eric of Pomerania – precisely a day before the transfer window closed. On a snowy deadline day, the club had a friendly match. So, the 2006 Uefa Champions League winner threw him into the fray. He struggled to assert himself by his own admission, perhaps because of the weather. Nonetheless, Larsson handed him a short-term deal because his first touch resembled that of his former Barca teammate’s – Ronaldinho.

“He told me he was not happy with my performance. He then said: ‘the one thing that showed me you’re a good player is your first touch’. He compared my first touch to Ronaldinho’s,” a blissful Ralani says.

Larsson watching as Ralani took on a player

He did not hesitate to sign the three-month contract he was offered. Interestingly, he was always the rookie coach’s first sub for the entire three months. But there was one game where the team’s left-winger was suspended. The BaSotho Tigers prodigy was deployed there, and he turned on a five-star performance, even winning man of the match. Surprisingly, in the next game, he was back on the bench.

But Larsson, who spent two months under Manchester United’s legendary manager Sir Alex Fergusson in 2007, sat him down and explained that his turn would soon come.

With just a week before the end of his short stint, Larsson needed him again. The team was trailing 1-0 with 30 minutes to go. They needed to win to keep up pace with the Superettan log leaders, who were four points ahead of them. Desperate for maximum points, the then-budding manager summoned the South African attacker. The instruction was simple: ‘go and win the game for me’. He just had to put the bit-part role frustration at the back of his mind and repay the man.

Once again, he didn’t disappoint, turning on a dazzling performance, and his two assists won them the game. “After the game, Larsson ran across the field to me, and he hugged me. He said, ‘thank you, son’. He was so happy.”

Ralani and Larsson shared a special relationship

Big Swedish sides, including Malmö FF, where the great Zlatan Ibrahimović cut his football teeth, and Helsingborg were after him. His three months at Landskrona were almost over. The media had caught wind of his contract situation. So, after the 2-1 win, they were all over him. The million-dollar question was which club he would settle for.

Knowing how cunning journos could be, Larsson stood next to him throughout the post-match interviews. Larsson had a shocking answer when the midfielder was asked what he would do if Landskrona could not afford him. ‘Surprise is going nowhere; if Landskrona can’t afford him, I’ll pay him myself’. The following day, the story was splashed all over the front pages of Sweden’s newspapers.

After being handed a six-month extension, he scored seven goals and assisted five in 18 games. Larsson gifted him the signed number 17 Manchester United jersey. “He gave it to me framed and said ‘thank you for the good season’. I have his jersey till today. I couldn’t wear the jersey. I kept it framed.”

After three years in charge of the team, Larsson left. Ralani would play another two seasons before a knee injury kept him on the sidelines for several months.

“I was praying that God would help him during that period. It was painful for me,” his mom says. Her God answered her prayers when he was handed a two-year contract by Danish side Lyngby FC.

However, the club fired the coach who signed him after failing to guide them to the topflight despite being at the top for much of the season.

“A new coach [David Nielsen] had to come, and we worked with him. We won promotion to the topflight League [the following season],” he says, adding that the same coach he won the League with is the same man coaching Gift Links at Danish Superliga club AGF.

After some limited game time in the elite League, he called Larsson, who was now in charge of Helsingborg. He invited him to come and train with the team to assess him.

“I trained for five minutes, and he said, ‘stop, go and sign a contract’. I stayed another season.”

Ralani scored 16 goals for the Citizens during his four year stint with them

In 2017, the 34-year-old returned home to play in the PSL for the first time in Cape Town City colours. He has been a prominent player in his time in the Mother City, contributing goals and coming close to becoming the club’s all-time leading scorer. Ralani, who helped the Citizens clinch the 2018 MTN8 title under coach Benni McCarthy, scored 16 goals for the Citizens across four seasons, one behind Kermit Erasmus. 

After four years with the Citizens, Mamelodi Sundowns announced his surprise signing on December 28. The journey continues at Chloorkop for the talented winger.

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