One of the biggest surprises ahead of Varsity Football 2019 was when UJ confirmed Sphesihle Mbhele as their captain, but the freshman is already playing and talking like a veteran.
When Mbhele meets his opposing captains for the pre-match coin toss, he has and will continue to come across an intriguing spectrum. CUT’s captain, Keitumetse Mabathoana, might be equally pint-sized but, at 25, is seven years older than UJ’s jersey number 6. Then there are the towering figures of Rorisang Rapelang (TUT), Simbongile Njokwe (UP-Tuks) and UFS captain Gauta Mokati. Meanwhile, UKZN’s Lungani Nhlengethwa and UWC’s Emmanuel Sebareme (who Mbhele will face in Thursday’s Round 4 clash) are also first year captains but have Varsity Football experience and years on him.
“Since I was a kid playing in the junior ranks I have been a captain, so it’s not a new thing for me. However, it’s a big responsibility that I have to captain such a big institution like UJ at the highest level,” Mbhele told varsitysportssa.com pre-season.
At the time, ‘Kaka’ (as he is nicknamed), joked that “there’s cameras involved, it’s not child’s play” but looked comfortable with the responsibility on him. Instead, it’s only the recognition from his teammates which matters to the Transportation Management student.
“I’m trying to have fun and enjoy myself but, after all, its not about me it’s about the team. As long as the team does well then I’m happy.”
Mbhele reserved special praise for the belief the UJ coaching staff, led by Mandla Zwane, have shown him as he begins the road, hopefully, to a successful professional career like Zwane and goalkeeper coach Thabani Stemmer had.
“Their training sessions really prove that they’ve been there and done that, and have the scars to prove it. Apart from that, they treat everybody equally and they’re more than just coaches to us, they’re like father figures. That includes the rest of the coaching staff, our sports scientist, our manager, even our groundsman – they’re doing an exceptional job.”
Of course, the 18-year-old is tasked with more than just saying nice things. In 2018, the Orange Army had a memorable season which ended earlier than they wanted when they topped the table only to fall short, via penalties, in their semi-final against neighbours Wits. It means that their fans are still waiting to celebrate a Varsity Football title, which also eluded them in the 2014 and 2016 finals.
“Making history wouldn’t be such a problem… we all want to be history makers and don’t want to come out second-best this year,” Mbhele says confidently.
So far, he has guided UJ through a nervy win against CUT before a chastening 0-2 reversal against TUT. Mbhele and co. were ruthless during the double header, though, when they humbled three-time champions UP-Tuks 4-0.
Now, at their Soweto Campus home ground (special to Mbhele because he grew up down the road, despite being Newcastle born), they’ll face 2015 champions UWC – rejuvenated after their own win in Round 3. The teams have one win each, with two drawn, from their four previous clashes.
“The team feels good that we were able to bounce back and come back stronger after the TUT loss, but that’s all in the past now, we are just focused on the next game. The biggest lesson was that to win games, you need convert all chances you create,” Mbhele concludes.
Tickets for the UJ vs UWC clash in Soweto (kick-off 18:30) can be bought for just R10 if you use the Varsity Sports App, downloadable from the Apple App Store on iOS devices or from the Google Play store for Android users.