Khama Billiat has played a key role in Mamelodi Sundowns' incredible journey to the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2016, continuing a level of performance that has made him one of the stand-out midfielders in South African football in recent seasons. Not one to rest on his laurels, Billiat is preparing to unveil his talents on the global stage, when the CAF Champions League winners meet Kashima Antlers in the competition's second round.
“We're really thrilled to have got this far," said Billiat in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, ahead of 11 December's clash in Osaka. “This is a huge competition and it'll be very important to our careers. It's so good to have the opportunity to take on the world's best."
Speaking in a steady, quiet voice, not what you would expect in a chat taking place right after a high-octane training session, Billiat's shy manner also comes as something as a surprise – a stark contrast to his explosiveness and forcefulness out on the field.
The heart-beat of the team's "CBD" core, made up of (Leonardo) Castro, Billiat and (Keagan) Dolly, the trio make it their business to dictate the side's tempo, rhythm, positional play and movements in each encounter.
The Sundowns may be nicknamed 'The Brazilians', but within the club's coaching staff they have closer links to the Spanish game. Contact made with FC Barcelona and work carried out in collaboration with the Johan Cruyff Institute, as part of the structuring of Sundowns' own player development academy, drives a philosophy of one-touch, total football, with head coach Pitso Mosimane also demanding pace and pressing from his players.
“I'd say that togetherness is our main strength," said the 26-year-old. "We're like a family, we understand each other well and we don't have any problems or cliques. We all fight together for us all to be successful, to get better every day."
That team spirit and togetherness comes to the fore again when mentioning the individual distinctions he has received recently, such as the South African Premier Soccer League (PSL) Player of the Year award. "It feels good, of course, but I haven't forgotten that I was nominated for what I achieved alongside the best players around, my Mamelodi team-mates.
"It's down to them that I've been able to perform to my best," added the Zimbabwean. "I'm really thankful to them all for their help and support."
Heroes and dreams
Born in Harare, Billiat began playing football at school and it was not long before he caught the eye of scouts, at the age of ten earning a scholarship to continue his development at Aces Youth Soccer Academy. At 18 he signed his first pro contract with CAPS United in his homeland before being snapped up by Ajax Cape Town just three months later.
The switch to Mamelodi came about in 2013, where he enjoys a mentor who is made-to-measure: Peter Ndlovu. The former striker sparkled in England for Coventry City, Birmingham City and Sheffield United, was Zimbabwean football's biggest star during the 1990s - and one of Billiat's childhood heroes - and now holds the post of team manager at Sundowns.
"It's a privilege to be able to work with him, I never dreamed that this might happen," revealed Billiat. "I grew up seeing him play, he used to make the whole country proud with everything he achieved. It's a blessing to be able to spend time with him. We talk a lot and he gives me plenty of advice."
A long-time admirer of ex-Brazil magician Ronaldinho, Billiat is not short of ambition and feels Japan 2016 could help put him in the shop window. "I'd love to play in Europe," he confessed. "I follow Borussia Dortmund and Atletico de Madrid, so it'd be fantastic to get that far one day. But to do that I need to work every day to get better, then better again, then even better!"
And though the words "The sky is the limit" feature on Mamelodi Sundowns' badge, just how high are the team aiming in Japan? "Our dream is to reach the final," Billiat stated, as our conversation concluded. "But, above all else, we want to compete with the best, show what we're capable of and see how far we can go."