Keagan Dolly is on a mission for SA
The former Sundowns maestro wants respect for SA players in Europe
The current generation of South African players in Europe have to earn back the respect of teams and coaches there, says the Bafana Bafana and Montpellier winger Keagan Dolly.
If there does seem a group of young men capable of doing that it is SA's French foreign legion in Ligue 1 of Dolly, Lebo Phiri, Bongani Zungu and Lebo Mothiba. Three were called up for Bafana's 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Libya in Durban yesterday, but, with injuries, only Dolly survived.
The winger's statistics, since being pried like a troublesome molar from Mamelodi Sundowns in January 2017 by Montpellier Hérault Sport Club, reveal a teething period in France. In the second six months of 2016/17, Dolly played 12 games under Frédéric Hantz as Montpellier laboured to 15th out of 20. He played 17 times in the full 2017/18 season when, under Michel Der Zakarian, HSC flirted with the top six, but managed 10th.
Dolly found some legs again at the end of last season, with three consecutive starts and a superb first goal in a 2-0 away win against Nantes, where he collected the ball in midfield, cut left and, facing the corner post, chipped the keeper.
"I got a knee injury against Nigeria [in Bafana's 2-0 Afcon win in June 2017], was out for nine weeks and missed preseason. A new coach came in and didn't get to see me properly in the preseason," Dolly explained.
"People at home will say I'm not playing, but they don't see behind the scenes. I'm growing, I'm not complacent - enjoying life.
"It's not easy to walk into a team in Europe, especially when you're from SA. People hardly know players from SA.
"It's for the people like me, Bongani, Mothiba, Phiri and Kamo Mokotjo in England to try to prove ourselves so that teams and coaches in Europe start taking South African players seriously again."
Dolly believes, from the generations of Lucas Radebe and Benni McCarthy, a decade of duds who returned home early, or had disciplinary problems, have cheapened South African players' reputation in Europe. "I think it just faded away. European teams started taking us less and less seriously,"
"It's up to us now to try to show again that we're able to compete with the best."
The level in France is high. Huge Qatari investment has made Paris Saint Germain the sixth-richest club in the world, their ranks swelled by Neymar, Thiago Silva, Gianluigi Buffon and Angel Di Maria. Monaco have Radamel Falcao and Joao Moutinho; Olympique Marseille have Dimitri Paet and Florian Thauvin. Ligue 1 is the fifth-biggest in Europe after Spain, England, Germany and Italy.
"PSG and Monaco also believe in the youngsters. As much as they buy players, they also promote them. And they play them week in and week out," Dolly said.
"Kylian Mbappe is 19. And if he didn't play for PSG or Monaco, he was never going to shine in a World Cup. He started playing for Monaco at 16. In France, age doesn't matter. Sometimes I sit on the bench and I'm watching an 18-year-old playing ahead of me."
Dolly's teammates include goalkeeper Benjamin Lecomte, recently picked for France, Tunisia's World Cup midfielder Ellyes Skhiri and Cameroon Afcon-winning left-back Ambroise Oyongo.
Six months after he arrived at Montpellier, eccentric owner Louis Nicollin, who resurrected the team in the 1970s and would sit on the bench with his managers, died. His son and new president, Laurent, has carried on sitting on the bench.
"The family is into the team. And the team is like a family. You'll never say it's the president because he's so down to earth,' Dolly elaborated. "The dad dying was a blow to Montpellier as a city. Everyone loved him.
"The city is more a holiday destination than Marseille. Pretty, beaches, lots of sightseeing. Right now I wouldn't want to go anywhere else. I still want to pay Montpellier back for believing in me and bringing me to Europe."
French football has similarities with SA in its quickness and creativity. "It's physical - you have your big players from Africa. It's more direct. Of course, the intensity is higher. But if you watch Chiefs-Pirates, it's not that different," said Dolly.
"Phiri is doing well at Guingamp. Zungu is doing very well. The fans at Amiens love him, the team loves him. With Mothiba, it's not easy for a team in France to pay €8m as Strasbourg did to Lille last week. He had a great preseason, scoring left, right and centre. He's the type of striker we need in SA still learning and who just wants to score."
Dolly keeps his eye on Sundowns and noted their four recent games without a goal, and tribulations of coach Pitso Mosimane rebuilding after the loss of his "CBD" - Dolly and the men now scoring for Kaizer Chiefs, Khama Billiat and Leonardo Castro. He has no bad blood with the club after their circus act trying to pull out of a European buyout clause in his contract in 2017.
"They were protecting themselves, we were protecting ourselves. Sundowns will always be in my heart. They made it possible for me to go to Europe by playing major tournaments, winning trophies. It was difficult to leave. But I also felt that if I stayed longer in SA I would become complacent. That was also why I left Ajax Cape Town for Sundowns."
The pattern has been there. From the inconsistent 22-year-old who joined Sundowns from Ajax, to the 2016 Caf Champions League winner and Bafana regular who joined Montpellier, Dolly has always moved out of his comfort zone to new challenges.
Now the mission for the 25-year-old is nailing down a first-team place in Ligue 1. "Create more goals, score more goals, then probably the dream was always to go to England. If I keep working hard I'll get there."