Bench-warmer is hitting the heights

Bench-warmer is hitting the heights

Siyanda Xulu of Maritzburg United (Photo by Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)

Siyanda Xulu’s rise from bench-warmer at Kaizer Chiefs to Bafana Bafana captain is a transformation to put a smile on the face of all but the most cold-hearted of football supporters.

Xulu was one of South Africa’s best young centrebacks at Mamelodi Sundowns, earning a move to FC Rostov in Russia in 2012, but his career stalled on his return to South Africa in 2015. He looked, on the face of it, an excellent signing for Steve Komphela in his first season at Amakhosi, but something clearly went badly wrong from the off. Xulu was horrendously under-used by Komphela at Chiefs, making just six league appearances in two seasons, and was even put on the transfer list by the club at the end of the 2015/16 campaign.

Eventually, Xulu was offered an out from his nightmare at Naturena by Maritzburg United coach Fadlu Davids.

“He promised he would help make me one of the best defenders in South Africa again,” said Xulu of Davids on the Maritzburg United official website, and this has proved prophetic indeed. Xulu has shone as Maritzburg had a stellar season, finishing an impressive fourth in the Absa Premiership and reaching the final of the Nedbank Cup.

Still just 26, the central defender now has a chance to reignite his international career. While the Cosafa Cup is often frowned upon as a bit of a nuisance in the overall football calendar, it does give the opportunity for fringe players to stick their hands up and claim a more regular place in the Bafana Bafana side.

It is, for example, the arena where Katlego Mphela first shone, before going on to be joint-third on Bafana Bafana’s all-time leading goalscorer list.

Xulu has the opportunity to lead a young group of players in Polokwane, and put his hand up for a more regular place in Stuart Baxter’s squad. You can read what Xulu has to say about this new lease of life on the opposite page.

Elsewhere in this week’s Phakaaathi, I got to talk to a legend of the global game on the weekend, as Didier Drogba was in South Africa to watch Real Madrid beat Liverpool in the Uefa Champions League final. Drogba, of course, has some special Champions League memories of his own from his time at Chelsea, and he shares a little about that on Page 6.

The play-offs are hotting up, meanwhile, as the battle for the final place in the Absa Premiership hits its last couple of games, pending, of course, any court action from Ajax Cape Town.

Black Leopards are in pole position, but a win for Jomo Cosmos today in Thohoyandou would throw it all into the balance once more.

With the fan base that Leopards have in the Limpopo province, I would quite like to see them go up, as it would make for a passionate atmosphere at their home games next season, and these kinds of environments are what the top flight desperately needs more of.

You can get all the latest play-off news on the back page.

With the transfer window open, on Page 10 we also look at six possible moves ahead of the new campaign, with one Orlando Pirates striker surely set to try and find himself more regular game-time.

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