Siyabonga Nomvethe: So long and thanks for all the goals
Bafana Bafana striker brought the curtain down on a career of remarkable longevity on Saturday
Siyabonga Nomvethe brought the curtain down on a career of remarkable longevity on Saturday when he featured off the bench for AmaZulu against Bloemfontein Celtic, a low-key end for a player who scored at a Fifa World Cup and played for both Soweto giants.
Nomvethe has hung up his boots at the age of 41 having spent 22 years as a professional, during which time he also played in Italy, Sweden and Denmark.
Prolific in patches, he could also frustrate, with a poor goals return of 16 in 82 caps for SA for a forward who was given so much opportunity, though at times he was used more as a winger than striker. But that should not detract from the fact that he enjoyed a professional career spanning more than two decades, a rarity anywhere in the world, let alone SA, where most players don’t make it much past 30.
A spelling mistake in his ID book meant that for much of his career he went by the name of Nomvete, before this was corrected in later years and the “h” added.
Born and raised in KwaMashu, he is deeply proud of his roots and would, throughout his career, conduct most interviews in Zulu. That meant conversation opportunities were limited, and few have managed to fully unmask the character that makes up Nomvethe’s personality.
But he has certainly been a model professional, a clean-living individual who also showed respect to the game that made him famous, and would not be drawn into the trappings that come with a successful footballer’s career.
Nomvethe rose to national fame as part of a fearsome front trio at African Wanderers during the 1997/98 Premier Soccer League season along with Sibusiso Zuma and Phumlani Mkhize.
Wanderers were relegated at the end of that season, but Mkhize and Zuma were snapped up by Orlando Pirates, and Nomvethe went to Kaizer Chiefs, having scored 11 top-flight goals. He was a hit with the AmaKhosi, netting 48 goals in 82 league starts, over three seasons, and won a move to Italian Serie A side Udinese.
It was a majot step forward in his career, but Nomvethe remained a raw talent, his blistering pace often masking the flaws in his game. He too often strayed offside, frustrating coaches no end, while he had a habit of holding onto the ball too long, turning promising attacking positions into wasted opportunities. The image of Nomvethe, head down, running the ball out of play without seeking to find a teammate is an enduring one from that time.He might have been able to get away with that in the PSL, but it did not wash in Italy. In his first season his six starts and 10 substitute appearances at Udinese did not produce a single goal. He never started another Serie A game for the club, despite remaining on their books for another three years. Loan spells at Salernitana and Empoli in Italy, and Djurgården in Sweden, also failed to produce results.He returned for a short stint with Orlando Pirates before joining Aalborg in Denmark, where he managed 12 goals in 60 starts over three seasons. Now into his 30s, he appeared to be winding down his career when he returned to the PSL to join Moroka Swallows. Instead he gained a second wind as he helped The Birds avoid relegation, and then launch a most unlikely title challenge in the 2011/12 campaign.But now the raw pace of earlier in his career was largely gone, replaced by more guile that made him more of a threat in front of goal. He managed 20 league goals that campaign, the second best of his career, which also provided a return to the Bafana Bafana squad for the first time in two years.He stayed a total of six-and-a-half years at Swallows before a return to KwaZulu-Natal and AmaZulu in January 2016. He scored 17 goals in 24 starts in the National First Division in the 2016/17 campaign, but since Usuthu bought their way back into the PSL, he has been used sparingly.In all, he scored 167 goals in 412 starts in club football in the various countries in which he played.
Nomvethe made his Bafana debut against Mauritius in 1999, and while goals might have been sparse in international football, he did have a habit of scoring important ones. He netted against Ghana and Tunisia at the 2000 Nations Cup finals, against Morocco at the continental competition two years later, and versus Slovenia as SA claimed a first ever Fifa World Cup win in Japan/South Korea in 2002.
Two more goals followed in the Nations Cup finals in 2004 against Benin, his last in a major finals, while he also scored the goal against Sweden in 1999 that gave Bafana their first victory against European opposition. He won 25 caps for the National Under-23 side, and played at the 2000 Olympic Games, with his 15 goals for the team still a record.