Zebras legend reflects on stellar career
The year was 2009, the venue a packed Peter Mokaba Stadium, the occasion The Vodacom Challenge and the opponents, none other than the mighty Manchester City.
For retired Zebras legend, Phenyo Mongala, his debut for South African giants Orlando Pirates remains the stuff of folklore.
Coming off the bench with Pirates 1-0 up, ‘Mzambiya’ sealed the win for his new side in sensational, if slightly fluky, fashion.
Receiving the ball on the left side of the pitch, with seemingly little danger, an unmarked Mongala unleashed a 30-yard rocket that screamed over Stuart Taylor’s desperate lunge and nestled in the top corner of the City goal.
It was a moment of magic that catapulted the dreadlocked winger to instant ‘fan favourite’ status amongst the Buccaneers faithful.
Eleven years later and it is a strike the decorated Kanye native remembers with fierce fondness.
“Signing and then playing for a big club like Pirates was a dream come true. I remember my first game was against Manchester City. I tried crossing the ball into the box but it went in and that made me happy. Getting an opportunity to play against Man City was one of my greatest accomplishments. I went onto the pitch with an aim of proving my worth and I did it by going all the way to score a goal!” recalls the 35-year-old, pointing out the City starting line-up on that sun-kissed July afternoon in Polokwane included the likes of Welsh striker, Craig Bellamy, and Argentinian superstar, Pablo Zabaleta.
Mongala would spend three trophy-laden years with the Sowetan outfit, an adventure that climaxed with the South African Premier League title in 2011.
“I am proud to have played for one of the biggest clubs in Africa. I enjoyed my time at Pirates even though it came with a lot of pressure,” the left-sided midfielder told Voice Sport in an exclusive interview this week.
Despite all he achieved on the football field, Mongala has mixed emotions when he looks back on his playing days.
His career came crashing to a painful, premature end, when, at the age of just 30, he suffered a devastating knee injury, tearing both his ACL and Meniscus during a training session with BDF XI.
“I believe I had more to offer football!” exclaims the man who spent four years at Township Rollers (2002-2006), adding that if it were not for the injury, he feels confident he would still be playing at the highest level domestically.
Mongala’s fall out with BDF – he dragged the Army Boys before Footballers Union Botswana (FUB) after they refused to take responsibility for his injury, arguing he originally picked it during his time with Mochudi Center Chiefs – marked an unfitting finale to a career of unprecedented highs for a local player.
It was a journey that started 18 years ago at his boyhood club, Kanye Southern Pirates, ultimately piquing with Pirates of the Orlando vintage.
After staring with Rollers, Mongala secured a move south of the border when Silverstars (Platinum Stars) came calling.
During his seven-year stint in South Africa, he was loaned out to the both University of Pretoria and later Bloemfontein Celtic, paving the way for fellow Zebra, Joel Mogorosi to sign for Celtics.
His international exploits include a year in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where he turned out for CS Don Bosco during the 2013 season.
“The style of play in DRC was a bit different but I acclimatised to it and got the best out of myself as a player. I returned after a year and played for Chiefs again before joining BDF XI,” says Mongala, who insists he is not bitter about the way BDF treated him but at the same time describes the club’s management as ‘cruel’.
On a happier note, the wounded winger has fond memories of his time with the national team.
Mongala was an integral part of the Zebras side that qualified for AFCON 2012, featuring in all three of Botswana’s fixtures at the continental showpiece.
Although the Zebras ultimately left Gabon/Equatorial Guinea pointless, finishing bottom of their group after defeats to Ghana, Guinea, and Mali, Mongala remains immensely proud of Botswana’s West African exploits.
“It was the country’s first taste of AFCON. We did our best there and I honestly can’t say we underperformed. It was a big stage for all of us; from the nation to the coach and players!” says the midfield maestro, who is in little doubt as to why the Zebras have failed to build on what remains their sole AFCON appearance.
“The poor administration that we have. They lack vision and don’t ask for help from the people who have the ability to take the team forward.”
Fast forward to today and Mongala finds himself in a slightly low-key role compared to the days when he would zoom down the wing in front of 40, 000 screaming Pirates fans.
“I am now a father of two and I have been helping out a Kweneng Second Division team named Sweet XI as I await to get my coaching license.”
For the most part, ‘sweet’ is a description that perfectly sums up Mongala’s footballing journey – a journey that is far from complete!