Mamelodi Sundowns young star Cassius Mailula reflects on a superb debut soccer season
After impressing in the reserves, the young striker was promoted to the star-studded first team – and banged in 15 goals in 31 games.
There are few dressing rooms as star-studded as that of Mamelodi Sundowns in Africa’s soccer community. So, it takes a special player to stamp his authority and command a regular place in the side.
The fact that 22-year-old forward Cassius Mailula did it in his debut season – after being promoted from the Sundowns’ reserve side – is a feat.
The Limpopo-born attacker scored 15 goals in 31 matches in all competitions during the recently concluded 2022/23 season – his first in the top flight. To complement that impressive return in front of goal, he also provided four assists.
Young player of the season
He is clearly a talented player. His outstanding performances, somewhat slowed down by injury niggles towards the end of the season, even earned him the Premier Soccer League (PSL) young player of the season accolade at the season-end awards.
“It has been a breakthrough season for me and not something that I actually expected,” the Masandawana academy graduate said at a recent media engagement.
“But, with the sacrifices I made and the hard work I did behind the scenes, it actually worked out and it helped me. I didn’t think, as a young player, I could come and play for such a big team and provide goals and assists.”
The Ga-Molepo native still pinches himself when he looks around the dressing room and sees players such as playmaker Themba Zwane and Denis Onyango beside him.
The presence of the former, in particular, induces goosebumps of disbelief from Mailula. The starlet has previously said of Zwane: “What he does with the ball never ceases to amaze me. He is someone I look up to and it is a privilege to finally play with him.”
Mailula says being around such players helps him to maintain his humility, a challenge for many young players who become drunk on their own supposed stardom.
He says the team’s elders ensure he keeps his feet on the ground by making him clean the dressing room, for example.
“That’s one of the things young players forget to do [respect their seniors]. We have to respect them and ask for advice.
“They have helped me a lot, giving me advice. Especially not to listen to the praise. Because sometimes it can kill you. So, they have helped me.”
One of the seniors helping to keep the forward firmly grounded is fellow attacker Peter Shalulile. Mailula says he is inspired and motivated to work alongside, as well as to learn from, the Namibian sharpshooter.
“To see him wake up early in the morning and come to the gym … How he carries himself off the pitch … It’s been great to work alongside him. It’s great to have someone like him in my life,” said Mailula.
Shalulile’s goal-scoring magic and level-headedness have evidently rubbed off on the youngster and he will hope to have even better performances next season – not to mention fewer injuries.
He knows he will have to work even harder than he did this season to achieve the same level – while incorporating the many lessons he has learnt.
“For me, it is to ask for help if I feel like I’m losing my way. To talk to my coach and my teammates,” Mailula told Daily Maverick on how he plans to sustain his rapid rise.
“I’m also trying to maintain my hard work. Because if I stop working hard and doing extra work like I have been doing, I am not going to have a great season like I had.”
The forward, born in 2001, acknowledges that – despite his stellar season – there are still some minute details he can work on to make himself a better player.
“It’s going to require me to work extra hard, to keep on pushing and not stop. Because everyone wants to play in our team. I need to make sure that I keep working hard and pushing, so that I also get the chance to showcase my talent,” Mailula stated.
Breath of fresh air
In a country that sometimes doesn’t grant young players the ideal platform to showcase their talents, while taking into consideration the demands of competitive and professional soccer, Mailula’s sustained involvement for Sundowns this season was a breath of fresh air.
With lethal goal scorers in the mould of Benni McCarthy and Shaun Bartlett at a premium in recent years, an ever-improving Mailula is likely to be a valuable asset to South Africa’s national senior men’s team for some time to come.
Bafana Bafana’s Belgian boss Hugo Broos has been impressed by Mailula – who has been at Sundowns since 2016 – and gave him his international debut in March 2023, when Bafana played Liberia in an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier. It was yet another milestone in a momentous year.
“When I look at him and his behaviour in the group, it’s very good,” said Broos of Mailula in March.
“He’s a guy with two feet on the ground. Even though there are a lot of things to do with him, he’s very cool. I like him very much.”
Broos has also spoken about Mailula’s readiness for a move to a bigger, foreign league. The Belgian poured cold water on the idea, saying the youngster needs a few more pressure games with Sundowns before he can think of such a move.
Come what may, many youngsters will look at what this precocious player has achieved and be inspired to work just as hard – to ensure that their idols become their colleagues. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.