When Hlompho Kekana was only 12 years old, he managed to win the admiration of the legendary Manchester United coach, Sir Alex Ferguson.
Kekana, then only a Grade 7 pupil, found himself on the pitch in Manchester, a world away from the classrooms of Ramakgotho Primary School. Sir Alex, the great Scot revered for his eye for talent, surveyed the young gems in front of him and noticed one unpolished diamond from Zebediela, Limpopo.
Any fan of the beautiful game knows that Fergie – whose massive trophy haul as a manager includes 13 English Premier League titles and two Uefa Champions League crowns – was not the easiest man to win over.
In fact, the sight of the revered manager chewing gum bouncing around his mouth as he followed proceedings closely from the dugout, was enough to strike fear in friend or foe alike.
This was the man who stripped the legendary Roy Keane of the captaincy, the same man who at one time kicked a boot towards the golden boy of English football David Beckham, giving him a deep cut above his eye. Those dressing room bust-ups were typical of the man considered one of the greatest managers of all-time – a fierce competitor who never gave an inch on and off the pitch.
He was also not one to give compliments willy-nilly. But the day he saw this African teenage starlet lording it over his Luxembourg opponents during a school tour, that cold, hard competitor’s heart melted.
For Kekana, the day he won the approval of the legendary manager, who was knighted in the 1999 Queen’s Birthday Honours list for his service to the game, is the day that he felt he could take football seriously as a career.
“It was just surreal,” Kekana, a staunch Man U fan, says about the encounter. “After watching us play against a school from Luxembourg, he came up to me and asked for my name. I told him with my broken English. He then said, ‘if football is what you want to do, I can see you playing anywhere in the world with that attitude.’ I was never the same person after hearing those words. I knew I had something special. Those words have carried me through all my career.”
Very few youngsters get the honour of meeting their heroes in the flesh but for the former Mamelodi Sundowns skipper, who found himself walking the same corridors as childhood heroes like former United midfielders Juan Sebastian Veron and Nicky Butt, dreams came true in spectacular fashion. It was the talk with Fergie however, that convinced him he was on the right path.
Fans that marvel at his spectacular long-range goals have the ’99 treble-winning manager’s pep talk to thank for inspiring him to fine-tune his shooting. Keke, as his former Downs coach Pitso Mosimane fondly refers to him, might only have scored 41 goals in just over 453 matches he played in the pro ranks but most of them have been crackers and in some instances, Goal of the Season contenders.
And, who would forget that extraordinary feat in 2012 – the day he banged in a cool 7 goals as Downs recorded the biggest win in South African history? They thumped a hapless fourth-tier side Powerlines FC 24-0 in a Nedbank Cup tie in 2012.
Surely, many will remember how the long-range sniper then announced himself on the international stage with a scorcher against Cameroon on March 26, 2016. His thunderbolt for the rainbow nation, struck from his own half, was deservedly nominated for FIFA’s Puskas Award alongside strikes by Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Brazilian superstar Neymar.
“I didn’t see anything stopping me after the talk with Sir Alex. I wanted to perfect my passing, I wanted to perfect my shooting. I don’t often score goals but when I do, people talk about them for a while. I score goals that are special,” he says self-assuredly.
Interestingly, he can’t pinpoint what Sir Alex saw in him neither does he remember what position he played on that memorable day in Manchester.
“Everyone was excited to see this kid wearing an oversize football jersey, enjoying the game. But Sir Alex’s words opened the way for me to see football and life differently. He said I was such a special kid. Each time I get onto the field to play I think of those words – my attitude has got to be right.”
Remember, Fergie, who spent 26 years at Old Trafford as the manager, and Keane were once an effective tag-team as captain and coach in the Red Devils dressing room. On the pitch, Keane was the iconic manager’s spirit animal – extremely competitive and seemingly allergic to losing.
For all his toughness, the former Man U captain, Keane, was also a leader. Perhaps in a 12-year-old Kekana, the man credited with transforming the ‘Red Devils’ from sleeping giant to roaring success saw this quality already shining through. It is a feature of his game that other coaches have gone on to notice.
“He has been a good role model and I don’t remember him missing a training session since I have been here (at Sundowns). He gives everything in every match. He gives the same spirit and the same mentality‚ irrespective of the age that is working against him,” the Al Ahly coach, Mosimane, said in January 2020 after Kekana’s 300th match for the PSL champions.
Jimmy Augousti described the former Bafana Bafana midfielder as a man who led from the front, a quality several others concurred with. Understandably, throughout his career, Kekana has been one to chase every ball to the last minute. Perhaps that is why he is Downs’ most successful captain.
“You’ll find him in a leadership position when he is done playing, he is a born leader,” the former Bloemfontein Celtic owner says. No doubt, he has had one of the greatest careers in the history of the PSL. Having represented the Chloorkop side over a decade, he sits level with Anthony Laffor and Daine Klate on a record eight PSL titles — a haul that nobody has topped.
The self-effacing Kekana, who also has a Caf Champions League title to boast of, won six League titles with the Brazilians to add to his two with SuperSport United.
But make no mistake, the journey has not always been rosy for the gritty anchorman. Before he could even dream of lifting a Caf title, he was once another young ‘ZB’ boy, with nothing to his name but hope and a dream to see his name in the bright lights one day.
“We signed him when he was 15 at an MTN schools’ tournament in Limpopo and I remember he couldn’t sign a contract with us because he was young, so his mother had to come and sign the contract on his behalf,” says Chief Thidiela of Black Leopards.
Clearly, he had already embraced the Manchester pep-talk as Thidiela remembers him as a “humble and hardworking boy”.
“He has kept in contact with us, which means he is somebody who remembers where it all started.”
On the pathway to superstardom, there were bumps on the way. For example, at Supersport United in 2010, he was unwanted, as the then coach Gavin Hunt thought he was surplus to requirements.
“I couldn’t believe my luck when SuperSport offered him to us. They had too many midfielders at the time, so he wasn’t a first team regular,” explains Augousti.
Even with his spirit and morale diminishing as he was offloaded, Kekana remained a model professional. “He’s been a professional player; he never gave us problems,” says Coltrane Munyai, a former SuperSport United media officer.
Munyai recalls how this new boy they had signed from Leopards was Player of the Year in his second season with Matsatsantsa.
“Gavin sold him to Bloemfontein Celtic, he said he was not in his plans. I guess it was a tactical move,” says Munyai, who describes the tough-as-teak midfielder as “grounded and down to earth”. Quite interesting, he won individual accolades at every club where he has played.
For those that saw him before the glitz and glamour of the topflight, before the speculated big figure salaries that players at the club reportedly earn, it is his modest disposition that is most striking.
“The guy never changes whether he has money, or he has nothing, he has always been full of respect,” says Robson Mongwe, the former owner of City Pillars, the club Kekana played for between 2005 and 2007.
Any footballer would be ecstatic to hear how they touched the life of a club owner years after leaving the team but Kekana humbly flinches when told how highly Mongwe thinks of him. Such is the man’s modest attitude.
“He was raised very well; he is very respectful. He touched my life in so many ways and became like family to us. I’d make sure I watch him with my children when he played. I’d tell my children ‘your brother is playing now’. I don’t know of any footballer who has given me respect like Hlompho,” says Mongwe, who can’t hide his esteem for the PSL’s 2018/19 Midfielder of the Season.
For the longest time, it was hard to imagine Sundowns without Kekana. For so many years he dictated the tempo at the heart of the defending PSL champions’ engine room and many astute observers of the game believed his grit and never-say-die attitude was the main reason behind the club’s success. It came as a shock when playing opportunities under Downs co-coaches Manqoba Mngqithi and Rulani Mokwena dwindled.
For all his outstanding and consistent performances, he only has two PSL awards under his belt, with the other being Goal of the Season in the 2013/2014 campaign.
While many have been aggrieved on his behalf, for the man himself, what always mattered most was that the men he led would be smiling on the podium when the season ends.
But then again, he found solace in the fact that the legendary Andres Iniesta “is one of the greatest players to never win the Ballon d’Or”.
“Personal awards are nice, but I want to see my team winning trophies more than anything,” he adds humbly.
Perhaps it is this selfless spirit that Fergie saw. It certainly is what will catapult him to the top after parting ways with Sundowns – a club he called home for almost 11 years.
On 2 August 2022, he announced his retirement from football, insisting he was still “enjoying my work at SABC.”