September 19 remains a day May Mahlangu will never forget. His dad, who had taught him all things football, met with his untimely death. Who was going to support his footballing dream as daddy had always done?
Mahlangu was only 12 at the time. Relatively young to even fathom what was happening. With mom still around, there was hope she would perhaps try and fill the void pops had left.
But tragedy struck again precisely 96 days later. Mom was gone too. And she had to leave on Christmas day when her two young sons expected her to be dressing them nicely with new clothes.
The world’s walls had seemingly crushed down on the Mahlangu boys. Anyone would have been forgiven to think it was all over for the two boys. “My parents passed on the same year – my father on September 19 and my mother on Christmas the same year (2001),” he recalls sorely.
Young Mahlangu had been accustomed to watching his dad’s favourite team Kaizer Chiefs. As his passion for the game began to grow, naturally, he had hoped his dad would be there to witness it. Alas, fate had other ideas.
“My dad loved Kaizer Chiefs, so we’d watch their games together. Some of my favourite players were guys like Doctor Khumalo, ‘Tsiki Tsiki’ Thabo Mooki and Brian Baloyi. I fell in love with football,” he tells FARPost.
Dad was merely a football lover and certainly far from being a trainer. And so, seeing the promise and passion of his little boy, he suggested that he join Remember FC in Embalenhle, a township in Govan Mbeki Municipality in Mpumalanga.
Remember FC, a modest semi-academy with just a thousand likes on its Facebook page, was closer to home. So dad thought his boy would hone his skills there and perhaps work his way up one day.
“He said, ‘join Remember FC’ they used to play in all these tournaments like the Nike, Simba and Transnet. They once travelled to Spain, and Nhlanhla Shabalala and Sibusiso Mzizi, who both played for Ajax Cape Town, started (their careers) there.
“I was 6 or 7 when I started playing. But we were just a bunch of kids running around the field,” he says, as he stresses it was not so much a professional set-up.
He was there until the age of 11. Being the go-getting little boy he was, he tried his luck at dad’s beloved team – Kaizer Chiefs. Maybe he could pull on the famous gold and black strip someday, his young mind thought.
“When I didn’t make it at Kaizer Chiefs, I thought it was over for me,” he says. However, a few years later, he heard about the Stars of Africa Academy. A man who had been an assistant coach at Amakhosi, Farouk Khan, was in charge of Stars. Little Mahlangu had heard about his exploits.
“When he was at Chiefs, they were playing beautiful football, so I thought if he went there (at Stars), I had a chance of becoming a great player under him. So I came through for trials, and he liked me and took me in.”
Getting to the trials was not easy. His grandmother, Joanna, now 87, who had assumed responsibility for raising him and his brother after the passing of his parents, had to sacrifice the little she was getting from her monthly social grant of a few hundred rands. She just wanted her grandson to realise his dream. Maybe she even thought that would numb the pain of losing his parents at such a young age.
On the other hand, Khan, unrivalled with his sharp eye for budding talent, knew he had a real gem on his hand in this 15-year-old boy from Secunda. He was also ready to play father figure to this young man.
“We were playing in the Vodacom League under Alexandra United, and so came a time where we decided to get rid of the big boys and remain with the younger players (Under 13).
“I asked all my players where they wanted to go so that we could make arrangements and release them,” Khan tells FARPost.
Bidvest Wits, Cape Town side Santos and Pretoria University were all keen on his services. Mahlangu, the academy captain at the time, was the last player Khan asked. “Son, where do you want to play?” he asked. His reply was sharp, short and straightforward. “Europe,” the 16-year-old replied.
Looking straight into his eyes, Khan, who had been working with youngsters for many years, could tell the teenager was not mincing his words. He meant every word he uttered. It came right from the depths of his heart.
“At that point, I had decided that I didn’t want to play in South Africa,” Mahlangu says. Watching Michael Owen bang in goals for Manchester United at the iconic Old Trafford, he just wanted to play his game overseas.
“I remember watching international football, particularly Michael Owen playing for Manchester United. I thought to myself, ‘look at the grass’. I said, ‘look at how they celebrate, how passionate they are’. I just wanted to play in Europe. I wondered how it would feel to play with these men,” adds Mahlangu.
Unreasonable as it sounded, Khan says it is incredible that they watched it unfold graciously over the years. And it happened as though it was divinely orchestrated.
Bosse Nilsson, a former director of football and Swedish side Helsingborg FC coach, flew into Johannesburg. His mission was to snap up Siyabonga Nkosi and possibly take him back to Helsingborg – the centre of the northern part of western Scania and Sweden’s closest point to Denmark.
The Red Ones, as the club is affectionately known, were in search of a man who would slot in perfectly at the tip of their engine room. Nkosi had been identified as the ideal man. “He was doing well at the time for Kaizer Chiefs, so Nilsson was here to sign him. But some coach had taken him to Germany (Arminia Bielefeld), so Nilsson didn’t find him.”
At the airport, Nilsson met with Nadeem Mahmood, one of the directors of the Stars Academy. “They started talking, and Nadeem told him about the academy; he was interested.”
With his Siyabonga Nkosi mission aborted, he agreed to prolong his stay and visit the academy.
Mandla Mdunge, Mahlangu’s teammate at the academy, remembers the momentous day vividly. “We played a friendly match at Marks Park against the Wits reserve side. May was always a hard worker. He played one of his best games on that day,” says Mdunge, who had a stint with Golden Arrows.
There was no way Nilsson was going to leave this talent behind. The boy was the future. “That’s how I was scouted,” says Mahlangu. And so the journey began. In 2008, he was off to his coveted Europe. Nilsson set it up so he would train with both Helsingborg and fourth-tier club IFK Hassleholm each day and that he would play league games for Hassleholm.
After impressing in the Swedish lower leagues, Helsingborg decided to permanently make him part of their squad in the summer of 2009. The man whose position he would seize in the Helsingborg senior team was former Zambia international Isaac Chansa.
It had been a good decade for the club without any silverware. The trophy cabinet was dusty; it was no longer funny. The last time they had won the Swedish Cup was in 1999. They had last won the Allsvenskan (domestic league) the same year.
“I knew they had not won a major trophy for 10 years,” says Mahlangu, who won eight man-of-the-match awards in his maiden season. He was eager to become a catalyst for change. And that he was!
In 2011, when fully in the first team, he helped them to a double – the Svenska Cupen and Allsvenskan. He took it a notch higher the following season, winning 17 man-of-the-match awards. So good was he that the League challenged his club to revise his contract midway through the season.
“My salary was very low because I was coming from the academy. The League complained and asked the club how I was earning so little when doing so well. They had to renegotiate my salary midway through the season.”
After six incredible seasons with Helsingborg, he won four trophies. His ingenuity did not go unnoticed as he won player of the season, player’s player of the year, as well as the best athlete of the year. One of his foals was named goal of the season.
“They were considering giving me nationality in Sweden so that I could play for their national team. But I always knew that I represent many kids back home in South Africa; I would never take up nationality in any other country,” says Mahlangu, who enjoyed 18 national team caps.
He considers it a blessing to have shared a dressing room with former Barcelona and Manchester United forward Henrik Larsson at Helsingborg. It has been over 13 years in Europe for the 32-year-old. After six years with Helsingborg, he had a stint with IFK Goteborg on the west coast of Sweden, then Konyaspor in Turkey, before linking up with Benni McCarthy as assistant coach of Belgian outfit St Truiden.
His career then took him to Romania, where he won the league title with Dinamo Bucuresti in 2017. His next stop was Bulgaria’s PFC Ludogorets before joining Kazakhstan Premiership outfit FC Ordabasy. And now, Mahlangu, who spent almost a year without a club, has joined another Kazakhstan topflight side FK Aksu.
But when fame and fortune located him, he never forgot where he came from. It took him several years to buy himself a car. “I didn’t want to buy a car and leave it here (South Africa). I bought a car when I won the player of the season.”
The first significant thing he did was to build his grandmother a house of her own. “May has changed our lives as the Mahlangus. I’m happy to have witnessed all this, and it’s always my prayer that the Lord protects him,” Gogo Joanna says.
When he was done building granny a home, he built his mansion in Secunda. “I then built the mansion I’ve always dreamt of.” Despite interest from local clubs, Mahlangu is not considering local clubs.
“I feel in Europe they respect me more than in South Africa; in South Africa, they don’t respect players. People are scared to talk. I have so many homes in Europe where I have done well for my career, and I wouldn’t waste that for anyone.”
And so, the dream continues in Europe as if to confirm he was cut out for the European game. Indeed, all shall be Gucci!