When Anele Ngcongca got the call that he had been included in Joel Santana's South Africa squad in 2009, he says he was on top of Table Mountain. "At least, that is the way that I felt," the 24-year-old told FIFA.com.
But while Ngcongca was metaphorically at the pinnacle of Cape Town's famous land mark, his inclusion did not sit well with all Bafana Bafana fans, many of whom had not really heard of the defender before. "But for me, it was just the greatest news. It is impossible to describe, but I just felt so happy. I really felt as if I was over the moon, and the first person I called was my mother."
The reason that Ngcongca was such an unknown entity in the country of his birth is that he made the move to Europe without having played a single game in South Africa's top flight. "I was playing in the second division for FC Fortune when I was sent to England on trials to Arsenal,” he explained this week. “I think I did well, but at the time, there was the problem of not having had played any international matches. But Arsene Wenger still recommended me to Belgium club Racing Genk, and in 2007, I signed a contract with the team."
It was not to be the only influence that the French coach was to have on Ngcongca's career as he also suggested that the player, who was born on the so-called Cape Flats on the outskirts of Cape Town in the township of Guguletu, become a right back instead of playing as an attacking midfielder as he had done previously. "Wenger said that Genk had a good youth system, and as I was still young, I decided that it would be best to go there. It is a decision I have not regretted."
Ngcongca has his late grandfather to thank for his first break into professional football. "He used to read a lot of newspapers, and he told me that he saw an advert for a club called FC Fortune. They announced that they were holding trials, and he suggested that I attend them. At the time I was playing in a local team called Aces United, and I went to the trials with some of my team-mates.
"FC Fortune belonged to former Atletico Madrid and Manchester United player Quinton Fortune and the person who discovered him, Colin Gie. At the end of my first day Colin Gie came to me and told me that I did not need to come back the next day. But it was not that I had failed the trials, they told me that I did not need to come back because I was already in the team after just one day."
Such was his talent that Ngcongca was soon given the opportunity to try some training abroad. "I had always had the dream of playing in Europe, and it was something that I wanted to do since I started playing football. Even though I supported local South African clubs like Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates, I did not aspire to play in South Africa's top flight. I wanted to play in Europe, so when I had a chance to move to Belgium, I took it straight away."
Settled but ambitious
Ngcongca says he enjoys living in Belgium, where there are several other South African footballers. "It is a small country and is well connected within Europe. Even though it is sad to leave one's family, I have adapted very easily and have not been homesick. I stayed with a family at first and have made some good friends. I would say life is simple here, but enjoyable. It is very 'chillaxed'," he said.
Even though Ngcongca is happy in Belgium and has achieved a lot with the club, he is looking for a move to a bigger club or a bigger league in the not-too-distant future. "I think I have been very loyal to my team. I have been with the club for five years, and it is time now to look for a new challenge. I have won everything in Belgium - the league, the cup and the Super Cup and have played in the Champions League. But I now want to compete against bigger clubs in a bigger league."
Ngcongca, who was in the South African squad at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ and played in Bafana's final group game, which they won against France, says that he is confident that the team can challenge for a place at the next finals in Brazil in 2014. "I think we can qualify. We just have to take it step by step,” he said. “I know we don't score a lot of goals, but we just have to start with victories. We are away to Botswana and at home to Ethiopia, and it is important that we do well in those matches. There are only five places for Africa, and we are determined to get one of them."