South African youngster Luther Singh is blazing a trail in Europe with Portuguese side Sporting Braga and has become the latest new hope for Bafana Bafana.
The versatile 20-year-old won Player of the Tournament and the top-goalscorer prize at both the regional 2016 COSAFA Under-20 Championships and continental African Youth Championships, leading to a first cap for the senior national team in March.
He followed that up with some strong showings at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in South Korea in May, and even though he did not get on the scoresheet, there was much to admire in his play, which is all about pace, skill and confidence.
The first thing that catches the eye with Singh though is his name, as Indian players have been rare at the top level in South Africa.
“My grandfather is of Indian descent, but I was born and raised in Noordgesig in Soweto,” Singh tells FORBES AFRICA.
“I come from a football family in that my father, uncles and cousins all played the game, but at a semi-pro or amateur level. I am the first to make it to the professional ranks.”
Singh was earmarked for a career in the professional game at the age of 11 when he was scouted by Farouk Khan, one of the top development coaches in the country who runs the successful Stars of Africa academy in Brixton, Johannesburg.
He was playing for junior side Nazarene FC and immediately after the game, Khan approached his parents to see if they would allow him to join the academy, where players live and are schooled.
“We don’t usually take players that young in the academy, but in Luther we could see immediately that there was something else – he is the complete package,” says Khan.
“He is a wonderful player. Aside from his technical skills, he can use both feet, and is strong and quick. He is a player that has all the attributes the modern game demands.”
“What he just needs now is patience, because he is very eager to be a first team player and sometimes he can overdo the training and push himself too hard. I always tell him that with his ability, he will have a successful career, good things will come to him if he is patient.”
Singh reveals that Khan is not only his old academy coach, but also a mentor.
“He has played a huge role in my life, he is my mentor,” Singh said. “We have like a father-son relationship. He has instilled great values in me and assured me that if I work hard, good things will come my way.”
While at the academy, Singh had role models such as current Bafana stars Tokelo Rantie, May Mahlangu and Sibusiso Khumalo, who at the time were also just feeling their way into the professional game.
“They were guys that I looked up to and gave me a belief in myself. If they could do it, I felt I could also. I saw the sacrifices they made and that taught me that I had to do the same.”
Another spin-off of being at the Stars of Africa academy was, through Khan’s connections, the chance to train in Brazil, where football borders on religion, at the age of 16.
“I trained at Vasco da Gama and Fluminense, two massive clubs there. It was a very good experience to see the environment, the skill of the players and how they use it, and how seriously they take being a professional and developing young players.”
Word of Singh’s ability soon got around and he had a number of suitors from South Africa’s Premier Soccer League, but Khan felt a player of his ability was ready for Europe.
It was a surprise then that he ended up in the Swedish second division with GAIS in August 2015, certainly a low-key introduction to life outside of South Africa. But that was always the plan.
“We wanted him to go somewhere where he would play professional football immediately, not for an academy side, on the bench or in the stands,” says Khan. “GAIS provided that opportunity to him and it worked wonders.”
Singh scored on his league debut and it quickly became clear to the Swedes that the teenager had something special. One Swedish journalist wrote that the South African was “far too good” for the Swedish second tier, and so it proved after a first full season in 2016 when he scored 10 goals in 23 starts, despite being used, at times, as a winger.
“When I arrived I played on the right or left-wings. I am lucky in that I can use either foot,” says Singh of his time at GAIS. “I also played as a number 10, or a forward, and that move has been really good for me. But I also enjoy playing as a winger, taking players on and creating chances for teammates. I like that.”
There was a lot of interest in Singh from all over Europe by the end of 2016, including the B-side of Real Madrid in Spain.
But he chose a club where he would likely see first team football more or less from the start, and in a league where his attacking instincts were unlikely to be stifled.
Braga finished fifth in the Portuguese league at the end of 2016/17 season, and will be involved in the UEFA Europa League in the new campaign.
Singh has settled well so far, and expects to be part of the first team group in the coming season.
It has helped that he has compatriots Bongani Zungu, Thibang Phete (also a former Stars of Africa graduate) and Haashim Domingo just 20 minutes down the road at Vitoria Guimar ães.
“I didn’t know Luther before, but along with Phete, they come to my house all the time,” says Zungu.
“Luther is a nice guy, very talented. I went to watch him play for Sporting Braga B before he went to the national team [in March] and he scored. It was my first time seeing him and I was very impressed.”
“There are players that look quite small off the field, but on it they are a beast. He has that presence.”
This should be the biggest season of Singh’s career to date, and as ever he is ready to learn.
“My current club [Braga] has players from all over the world, so there are a lot of skillful players,” he says.
“My teammates are highly technical, just like myself, so I believe the club’s style of play suits me very much. Working outside your own country is never an easy thing, but one needs to always remember why you have left your country of origin.”
“I have survived because I know what my priorities are – I am playing for my family, my country and to make a name for myself.”
“Football is a job, and I am grateful that I have been able to see the world because of the beautiful game, while I am also able to provide for my family.”
If his rise continues, before long the world will be seeing him. – Written by Nick Said