In June 2009 football fans around the world found out something that South Africans had known for a long time: Katlego Mphela can score spectacular goals. After coming on in the 64th minute of Bafana Bafana’s FIFA Confederations Cup third-place play-off match against Spain, it took him just eight minutes to give the hosts the lead. But that wasn't the dramatic part.
David Guiza scored two late goals for Spain in the 88th and 89th minute to give the Spaniards victory - or so they thought. But in the third minute of additional time, Mphela struck again, this time with a stunning thunderbolt from 30 yards to take the match into extra time. Although Spain went on to win the match, Mphela's goal was so impressive that it brought him worldwide recognition and a nomination for the 2009 FIFA Puskas Award for goal of the year.
While that moment catapulted him into global awareness, it was of course the following summer that truly stands out for Mphela when he appeared in all three matches South Africa played at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™. "It was a huge and amazing experience,” he said looking back at the event. “As young boys, we dreamt of playing at the World Cup, and playing at home made it even more special. I will cherish that memory forever. We did fairly well. Our group was the most difficult and some teams went through with as many points as we had. It was a good first experience, and I am confident that we will do much better next time."
Going for the knockout punch
Mphela is currently preparing to lead the Bafana attack in a 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Egypt. After being drawn into a tough group with the three-time defending champion Pharaohs, South Africa always knew they would have a tough campaign on their hands. But after three contests, Bafana are well placed with seven points - one more than surprise package Niger, but more importantly, six ahead of their north African rivals.
And Mphela has played a major part in getting Bafana to the doorstep of the finals, which will be co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. In the 2-0 victory against Niger, the 26-year-old scored the opening goal after just 12 minutes, and against Egypt, he struck three minutes into second-half injury-time for a 1-0 win. He is now confident ahead of the return leg in Cairo. "Of course I know it will be difficult as we are away from home,” he said. “They cannot afford to draw or even lose. But we have beaten them before and we know that if we get a result, we will take them out of the competition."
Mphela, who now has 19 international goals and is chasing Benni McCarthy's record of 31, said they will play for a win. "But we will not be stupid,” he clarified. “If they are all over us, we will settle for a point as that would also be a great result. The chances of us qualifying are very big, and we have our own fate in our hands. So it is up to us."
Discovered in a friendly
Mphela was discovered as a teenager playing in a friendly for an amateur club in his home town of Brits called Early Birds FC. "We were playing against Jomo Cosmos, which is a PSL side. I must have done well as I was invited to join them,” he explained.
In charge of the Cosmos youth set-up at the time was Roy Matthews, who played well over 150 matches for Charlton Athletic before moving to South Africa were he played with huge success for Arcadia Shepherds. Matthews had worked with several top South African forwards, including the current national team coach Pitso Mosimane and former New York Cosmos striker Jomo Sono. "When I saw him first, I knew immediately that he was the best striker I had seen since the likes of Pitso and Jomo,” said the 71-year-old. "At the under-19 level, if we scored six goals, he would score five of them. His terrific strike against Egypt was typical. He can score from anywhere, at any time," Matthews said.
Mphela was spotted by scouts and snapped up by French club Strasbourg. After two years with the club and on loan at Stade Reims, he returned to South Africa with Supersport, with whom he won the championship. In 2008, he moved to Mamelodi Sundowns. He finished the 2009/10 season as top-scorer, and was just a couple off the pace this term as Sundowns finished a disappointing fourth. "It was not a good season,” he explained. “We had certain goals we wanted to achieve as a club and also me personally. I scored only 13 goals and after having a huge lead in the table at one stage, we thought we would win the league."
Mphela's form has been impressive enough for several European clubs to come knocking, and in January Partizan Belgrade had a bid for the player turned down. "As a professional, I was disappointed as I would love to play in Europe again, but I also respected my club's decision," he said. However, if Mphela continues his growth, it seems likely only a matter of time before he gets his wish for a move back to Europe.