Themba Zwane set for his biggest season yet for Sundowns and Bafana
Once Clive Barker’s assessment of Themba Zwane when the winger was at Mpumalanga Black Aces as the best midfielder the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations-winning coach had seen since Doctor Khumalo might have seemed a little far-fetched.
In the past six months‚ though‚ far less so.
It was Keagan Dolly’s departure to Montpellier in France in January that saw the skillful Zwane finally‚ at 27‚ begin to realise his immense potential.
In a breakthrough season‚ Zwane made six league appearances in the ‘16’ of 2016-17‚ two as a substitute – then in the ‘17’ never looked back‚ with 20 games‚ just one as a sub‚ notching an impressive eight goals.
What it all seems to add up to is that‚ with defending champions Downs past the Caf Champions League group stages again‚ and Bafana facing World Cup qualifiers‚ if last season was big for Dolly this one could be on a similar scale for Zwane.
“It’s quite a transformation‚” Zwane admitted this week‚ pointing to the role played by his former Downs team-mate‚ Surprise Moriri.
“All I can say is thanks to Surprise. He was the player here who always motivated me.
“He would say‚ ‘You know what‚ you need to be patient. Your chance will come. And when that chance comes you need to be ready for it’.
“And then‚ ja‚ I was ready. I had done extra training. And when those chances started coming I did grab them.
“Surprise played a big role. Even now he assesses my games. He calls me afterwards to tell me where I need to improve.
“This can be a good year for me. As long as I become consistent‚ work hard and score goals.”
Zwane capped the season with a starring role in Bafana’s first-ever competitive win against Nigeria in Uyo‚ 2-0 in a 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier last month.
Though it was also one tainted by the winger nicknamed ‘Mshishi’ being desperately unfortunate to hit the woodwork twice.
“I thought I played well. I was very disappointed that I didn’t convert those two chances‚” he said.
“But the coach (new Bafana boss Stuart Baxter) told me that‚ ‘It happens. You might get chances in the next game‚ and try to convert them’.
“It was very unlucky. Especially with the first one. I don’t know what happened because there was no-one in the goalposts.
“I tried to toe-poke it. But that’s what happened.”
Downs’ 2016 Champions League title victory was Dolly’s springboard to greater things.
The Brazilians qualified for this year’s quarterfinals with Saturday’s 1-0 win against Saint George in Ethiopia‚ with Sunday's game against AS Vita Club at Lucas Moripe Stadium to spare.
Sundowns started this year’s group stages looking jaded‚ with a home draw against St George and defeat Esperance de Tunis coming on either side of an away win against AS Vita.
It seemed there was a mental hurdle – so soon after a tough league race where Downs were pipped by Bidvest Wits – for the players lift themselves past to face yet another lack of an off-season‚ and yet another grueling trek through Africa.
“It was difficult. But we have a good technical team. They tried to manage us and give us as much time off as they could‚” Zwane said.
“And we were really fresh for the games because of that.”
Africa watch out – Downs are coming again‚ and a flourishing Zwane is hungry to be a greater part of it.