The house in Mbalenhle Avenue, Secunda, in Mpumalanga, is a monument to May Mahlangu’s maternal grandmother, Joanna. She brought up the football star and his younger brother, Bafana, after they were orphaned.
“It was a tough time, and it builds your character. There is no one to look up to—no mother or father to advise you. My grandmother was there to inspire us. She told us that nothing comes easy. You have to work very hard to be successful,” says Mahlangu.
Mahlangu built the house for his grandmother after glory at the Africa Cup of Nations in January.
In this tournament, Mahlangu grew into one of Africa’s most exciting attacking midfielders since Steven Pienaar. His equalizer against Morocco ensured his country safe passage to the quarter-finals.
“I dedicated that goal to her and I am happy she saw me scoring that goal. She raised me from an early age and I would not be here if it were not for her. She also allowed me to join Remember FC in Secunda, at age 12, and Stars of Africa Football Academy at 15. I owe her my life as a professional soccer player,” says Mahlangu.
Teko Modise was another pivotal figure in Mahlangu’s life; he inspired Mahlangu to pursue football professionally.
“I always watched him, while he played for Orlando Pirates, Sundowns and Bafana. He was my childhood hero,” says Mahlangu.
For the past two seasons, Mahlangu, a Bafana Bafana midfielder, has been linked with several top European clubs, but his Swedish side Helsingborg IF has managed to hold on to him. The 2011 Swedish Player of the Year has been a revelation for South Africa during the past six months.
Gavin Hunt, former coach of SuperSport United, considers him and Dean Furman to be the best midfield-combination for the national team.
Boebie Solomons—a former Bafana Bafana under 20 coach and current assistant coach at Bloemfontein Celtic—agrees.
“May and Dean have been the biggest difference between the current Bafana Bafana team and the national group under its predecessor Pitso Mosimane. Take those two players away, and we are back at square one.”
David Nyathi, current under 19 coach at Ajax Cape Town and former Bafana Bafana stalwart, adds Reneilwe Letsholonyane to the mix, calling the three midfielders: “a pleasing triangle”.
Farouk Khan, director of the Stars of Africa Football Academy, says Furman plays the defensive role as midfielder, while Mahlangu is the offensive spark, with Letsholonyane excelling as distributor and organizer.
Khan saw Mahlangu evolve at the academy, when the young 15-year-old player joined. Mahlangu’s speed and endurance made him the best amongst the academy’s intake at the time.
“His bleep test [or 20 meter shuttle run test to estimate an athlete’s maximum oxygen intake] was a 16 or 17,” says Khan.
Solomons says Mahlangu’s awareness and vision separate him from the rest.
“He has the ability to determine, almost immediately, when he receives the ball, whether to counterattack and initiate a speedy build-up with turn over possession to release the strikers, or not. He can keep the ball glued to his feet while looking up, almost like a Zinedine Zidane. May is a three-in-one player: an initiator, a participator and a finisher,” he says.
Mahlangu must still improve his final pass, according to Hunt.
Lucas Radebe, former Bafana Bafana captain, says that Mahlangu is not a total player until he improves the defensive side of the game.
No player becomes a part of the elite without pain and some luck. Mahlangu has to survive setbacks and injuries for years if he is to become one of the greats.
“What impressed me about May, is his character. He is a born leader, with no fear of failure, with self-belief, confidence and a coachable spirit. He is the epitome of a complete modern-day footballer,” says Khan.
Mahlangu has already overcome tragedy and poverty—surely he can take anything life throws at him.