Affable South African soccer star Bongani Zungu, who’s in one of the top five leagues in Europe, speaks about his next big career goal – and he’s only 25.
Bongani Zungu is in many ways the poster-boy for South African football, a skilled technician whose ability on the pitch is matched by his determination and desire off it.
The Bafana Bafana midfielder has been something of a rarity of late – a player who has made the step up to feature in Europe and not just succeeded, but also taken his own game to a new level in a rapid rise through the ranks.
It did not come easily for the 25-year-old, who at times was riddled with self-doubt, but he had the grit to work through the hard times and now finds himself at Amiens in France’s Ligue 1, considered one of the top five leagues in Europe and therefore the world.
“I have always worked hard and set myself goals to achieve… I have never got to a point where I thought, ok, I have made it,” Zungu tells FORBES AFRICA.
“My first goal was to be a professional footballer and I achieved that. Then I wanted to play for the national team and I achieved that too.
“My next goal was to play in Europe and I have managed that also. But for me now, it is important to take a step up to play in a competition like the [UEFA] Champions League. That is my next goal and something I am working hard towards.”
Zungu missed the start of the new 2018/19 season in France with injury, and was also the subject of a reported €7-million ($8 million) bid from Greek side Olympiakos, which would make him the most expensive South African footballer ever.
The link to the Greek giants is their Portuguese coach Pedro Martins, who Zungu forged a strong bond with when the pair were together at Vitória de Guimarães in Portugal.
And that part of his European journey tells you everything you need to know about the affable Duduza-born star.
Zungu made his professional bow in the 2011/12 Premier Soccer League season for Dynamos and later University of Pretoria in the National First Division, but his attributes quickly caught the eye of Mamelodi Sundown coach Pitso Mosimane.
He made the move to Chloorkop (the training and administrative offices of Mamelodi Sundowns Football Club) the following campaign, with Sundowns holding off a number of other suitors, and immediately made himself a first team regular with his quality on the ball and eye for goal.
“I felt very comfortable at Sundowns from the start, I had a very good relationship with Coach Pitso and especially [assistant] Coach Rhulani [Mokwena]. I owe them a lot for the opportunity and I kept in touch with them long after I left the club.”
After three seasons, Zungu was snapped up as a free agent by Vitória, but he arrived at the club with a long-term injury that left him unable to train and not looking the part.
“When I arrived at the club, I think they [the other players] looked at me limping around and overweight and wondered what I was doing there. It was a very frustrating time for me because this was my big break to play in Europe and I couldn’t prove to them what I could do.”
But Zungu made his recovery his focus and rather than wallow in his misfortune, ensured that when he was fit again, he would be both physically and mentally ready for the challenge.
His opportunity would come, ironically, when an injury to teammate Rafael Miranda sidelined the experienced Brazilian and Zungu was thrust into the side at the end of 2016.
He would not look back, establishing himself as a regular, and earning almost cult status among the fans, who loved his languid style.
“The supporters were great to me, they gave me a lot of encouragement from the first time they saw me play. Maybe it was because they had to wait so long to see me because of my injury!
“And the coach Pedro Martins, he is a lot like Coach Pitso, he is very demanding of his players, but in a good way. He knows how to get the best out of you as a player and that certainly helped me. He is so disappointed if you do not reach the level he thinks you should be at.”
There was talk of a move to Portuguese giants Benfica after the end of that 2016/17 season after Zungu scored in a Portuguese Cup final loss to the Lisbon side, but in the end he made a late transfer deadline move to Amiens in France, a step up in terms of league.
He had another successful 2017/18 season, making 28 appearances in all competitions, and he appears ever closer to that ultimate club goal of playing in the Champions League, though he will likely have to make another move to achieve it.
“It’s been my dream, it always will be my dream. I hope I can achieve it one day because for me to feel like I truly ‘made it’, I think I need to be playing on the biggest club stage of all and that is the Champions league.”
– By Nick Said