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Sundowns icon Hlompho Kekana pinpoints Champions League triumph as career highlight

Sundowns icon Hlompho Kekana pinpoints Champions League triumph as career highlight
Mamelodi Sundowns salute and honour former captain Hlompho Kekana during the DStv Premiership match between Mamelodi Sundowns and AmaZulu FC at Loftus Versfeld Stadium on 18 September 2022 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)

Taking into consideration his upbringing in rural Limpopo, the odds of Hlompho Kekana rising to become one of the Premier Soccer League’s most iconic players were minimal. However, the recently retired midfielder defied expectations to add a significant chapter to the story of South African football.

Hlompho Kekana’s career is firmly etched in South African football history as one of the most successful and trophy-laden the country’s football followers have ever witnessed.

For the recently retired former Mamelodi Sundowns and Bafana Bafana midfield anchor, one moment stands out from the rest – captaining the 12-time South African champions to their maiden CAF Champions League title in 2016.

“I have so many beautiful memories in my career. There is no moment I take for granted. But to be that player and captain who went as far as lifting the Champions League? That was huge… Overall, my career was just a beautiful story,” Kekana told Daily Maverick.

Mamelodi Sundowns salute and honour former captain Hlompho Kekana during the DStv Premiership match between Mamelodi Sundowns and AmaZulu FC at Loftus Versfeld Stadium on 18 September 2022 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)

Beyond imagination

The 37-year-old, who grew up in rural Zebediela, Limpopo, joined that province’s most recognisable football club in the 2004/2005 season. He also represented clubs such as the now defunct Bloemfontein Celtic, as well as SuperSport United, before his eventual move to Sundowns in 2011.  

During his 10-year stay with Sundowns, Kekana led the team to that memorable Champions League victory. He also helped the team to six Premiership titles and the CAF Super Cup. To that, he added two Telkom Knockout titles.

That success complemented the two league titles he won with Sundowns’ Tshwane neighbours SuperSport during his three-year stay at the club.

“If my career was recorded or was a movie of my life, I was going to rewind it and do it all again – without having to erase anything. It was perfect. It was something that was beyond my imagination,” Kekana said, reflecting on this list of accolades.

“In my playing career, the only thing that mattered to me was to play the game that I know [the best way] I knew how. To make sure that I get satisfaction. Little did I know that I would play such a huge role in South African football,” added the soft-spoken midfield general.  

“Having the privilege to contribute so much to Sundowns’ success? That will continue to humble me, and remain special.”

In a country where many exceptionally talented footballers have either drunk their promising careers away, or off-field disciplinary misdemeanors have cost them dearly,  the Limpopo native has – throughout his career of well over 400 professional games –remained humble and focused.

Hlompho Kekana of Mamelodi Sundowns and Thembinkosi Lorch of Orlando Pirates during the Absa Premiership match at Orlando Stadium on 15 January 2020 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)

Humble beginnings

The perennially level-headed midfield pivot hints that his background growing up in the village of Moletlane, Ga-Mogotlane in Zebediela, kept his feet firmly planted as he ascended to the pinnacle of South African football.

Kekana also concedes that there were players who possessed more natural talent than him throughout his career. However, he worked tirelessly to ensure he could compete toe-to-toe with them – or even best them during matches.

“I always remember the 12-year-old Hlompho Kekana who wanted to play football in the Premier Soccer League. I knew how badly that kid wanted to make a mark. Not only to make a mark, but to also find satisfaction in the talent that he was given,” Kekana said.

“It was necessary for me to apply myself. Not only as a professional footballer, but also as a person who had a huge responsibility on his shoulders to lead. There’s a surname that I’m carrying,” the decorated footballer added.

“I was fortunate enough to understand [early on] that it’s not about me. It was never about me. It was for the people who associate themselves with the Kekana surname. I had the responsibility to represent those people.”


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Long-ranger

He more than succeeded in being an exemplary representative of the Kekana clan, as well as the people of Zebediela – plus the little boys and girls running around barefoot (but clad in dreams of success) on dusty village and township streets.

So well did he represent those who looked up to him that he forged his own trademark – long-range goals that most players can only dream of scoring. 

Kekana has previously shared that he was inspired by the likes of former Manchester United midfield-hardman Paul Scholes to test out his shooting skills.

When he did try his luck from distance, it sometimes ended with spectators picking up their jaws from the floor owing to pure disbelief at what they had just witnessed.

There is that famous goal against former Orlando Pirates keeper Wayne Sandilands, which left the shot-stopper sheepishly collecting the ball from his net after Kekana had spotted him off his line, before unleashing a bullet from comfortably behind the halfway line.   

“When I was a 12-year-old, I scored similar goals. Some were the mirror image of the one I scored at Orlando Stadium and against Pirates,” Kekana said. “So, that’s something I’ve always had in me as a weapon, that I knew I needed to use. Because not many people have that.”

As proof that that strike, despite Sandilands’s culpability, was not a fluke – Kekana had managed an almost identical goal against Cameroon for South Africa the year before. This was during an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in 2016.

Kekana recalls that Cameroonian goalkeeper Guy N’dy Assembé – perhaps embarrassed at being exposed like that in front of his home support – had approached him with a translator to question how he had seen him off his line and taken the shot so quickly.

Even the late Senzo Meyiwa was a victim of Kekana’s thunderous right foot during the 2013/2014 season. That particular goal was recognised as the best for that campaign.

There was also the 2019 thunderbolt against Cape Town City that was nominated for Fifa Goal of the Year in 2020. He went head-to-head with Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, Frenchman Andre-Pierre Gignac and eventual winner Heung-min Son of Tottenham Hotspur and South Korea for the accolade.   

“I scored a similar goal [long goal] when I was doing Grade 11. One of my class teachers, who had come to watch me for the first time, was in disbelief. He never imagined that I, who was a quiet child, could possess such a shot – let alone the performance I gave on the day,” reminisced the iconic skipper.  

Hlompho Kekana of Mamelodi Sundowns during the Absa Premiership match between Baroka FC and Mamelodi Sundowns at Peter Mokaba Stadium on 6 November 2019 in Polokwane, South Africa. (Photo: Philip Maeta / Gallo Images)

Life after 90

Now, Sundowns’ most successful captain in history dreams of imparting all the wisdom and knowledge acquired throughout his 18 years as a professional, to the future generations of South African football.

Currently, Kekana works as an analyst for SABC Sport, an occupation that he took up after Sundowns released him in 2021 and before his official retirement in August 2022. The club has since left the door open for him to return in a different capacity.

Kekana wishes to rejoin the club as a coach. Once he has acquired his coaching qualifications, of course.

“Coaching will be fun for me. I just need to get the qualifications. The fact I managed to lead Sundowns to so many trophies, that gives me a bit of an edge… The experience I’ve obtained throughout my career will help me deal with players properly.” DM

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