Before 11 June of this year, very few people knew Siphiwe Tshabalala outside the borders of his native South Africa. But when he thundered his now-famous strike that sent the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ hosts and its 44 million people into a frenzy against Mexico at a packed Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg, his name became a sensation. Ironically, the first question was how to pronounce that name.

“It’s funny, because after that game, many journalists came to me asking for the correct pronunciation of my name. At the back of my head I was thinking, ‘how did you pronounce it before?’ But I don’t blame them, there are 32 teams in a World Cup and you don’t expect the journalists to know all of them,” he said recently with a smile on his face. Soon, commentators not only figured out the correct pronunciation, but they almost revelled at doing so, as the rhythm and rhyme of his name became one of the most memorable of the finals.

As a player, his success was more than name-deep however. He was successful at emerging from the shadows of other decorated South African midfielders like Steven Pienaar and Teko Modise, who were already household names with the media – the former for his sterling season in the English Premier League and the latter for the hype he generated ahead of the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa.

A moment for the ages
As he sits down to reflect on a year that brought him fame and adulation, Tshabalala can only think of one moment that changed his life – a rare encounter with fate at a place that is fondly known as the Cathedral of Football in his homeland. He scored the maiden goal at a FIFA World Cup on African soil. “I still can’t believe that moment,” he admitted. “I hardly slept that night. I kept on playing the images of that goal in my head. It was special, it was a special goal. When I’m old, I will look back at that day as a day that changed my life.”

It wasn’t just the strike, but the arm-extending dance that also became an oft-repeated image from the finals, and Tshabalala is quick to remind that it is part of being an African to have rhythm and panache. “It’s part of who we are, we enjoy celebrating and we always want to do it in style,” he said. “Most of [the South African team] enjoy dancing to music, and we practised that move a few times at our training session.”

Being a part of the first African FIFA World Cup clearly means a lot to Tshabalala, and he speaks fondly of being the great strides being made in his country and around the continent. “Don’t get me wrong, but I got the feeling that for a while, Africans were not afforded the respect they deserve,” the Bafana Bafana midfield ace said. “Now we have hosted the World Cup, and we have shown everyone that we can do the job. I think we, as the young generation, must be proud to be Africans today.”

It was special, it was a special goal. When I’m old, I will look back at that day as a day that changed my life.

Tshabalala on his World Cup opener

Currently stalking the midfield for Kaizer Chiefs in the South African Premier League, Tshabalala made his international debut when he was still in the country’s First Division. He was the first player to don the Bafana Bafana jersey from the country’s second biggest league, and back then he was just an unknown kid who played for Free State Stars. It was the now-Bafana Bafana coach, Pitso Mosimane - then a caretaker - who saw something special from him. Soon, he signed for Chiefs, one of the biggest clubs in South Africa.

However, now he hopes to make a move outside of South African borders. “It’s every kid’s dream to play in Europe. Growing up, I wanted to play for a top club first in South Africa, then in Europe,” he said. The first part of his dream has certainly been realised and he might be well on the way to achieving the second part of his childhood fantasy.