The season Bongi Ntuli single-footedly plucked AmaZulu from the jaws of relegation
South Africa’s soccer community was sent into a tailspin on Sunday when Premier Soccer League club AmaZulu announced the passing of 32-year-old striker Bongi Ntuli following a brief battle with cancer.
The year is 2019. South African soccer top-flight club AmaZulu have marginally survived relegation by the skin of their teeth – finishing just four points above the drop zone.
During that 2018/19 season, the Free State Stars were victims of dropping to the second tier after finishing bottom on 27 points. AmaZulu accumulated 31 points in that campaign and finished 11th on the DStv Premiership table.
In spite of their overall league position indicating that the team had finished closer to the top eight, as opposed to the relegation zone, Usuthu were once again relegation candidates when the 2019/20 campaign commenced.
By that time they had secured efficient striker Bongi Ntuli on a permanent deal after he initially joined the team on loan from Mamelodi Sundowns in mid-2018.
Upon joining on loan, Ntuli impressed. His eight goals that season played a pivotal role in Usuthu’s 11th-place league finish. Hence the KwaZulu-Natal club snapped up the burly forward on a permanent deal at the beginning of 2019.
Having been ping-ponged on loan by Sundowns after not succeeding in his efforts to nail down a regular spot in the star-studded team, the trust by AmaZulu likely handed Ntuli the perfect platform and trust to showcase his goal-scoring prowess.
The Pietermaritzburg-born player was permanently back home, after he had also been loaned to AmaZulu in 2015.
Now settled, the former Golden Arrows and Platinum stars player could finally demonstrate exactly what Sundowns had seen in him when they signed him in 2014.
During the Covid-hampered 2019/20 season – as AmaZulu flirted aggressively with relegation and the other players in the team were struggling to find the back of the net – Ntuli was Mr Reliable. Earning them points that proved crucial at the end of the season.
The powerful and pacey number centre forward provided the KZN club with constant glimmers of hope during that Premiership season. At some point, AmaZulu only had 14 goals scored during what was another difficult season for the club. Of those, 12 belonged to Ntuli.
Ntuli’s goals dried up following the Covid-19-induced season stoppage. He would only score one more to finish joint-third behind the two top scorers for that campaign, with 13 strikes. Peter Shalulile and Gabadinho Mhango shared the golden boot, with 16 strikes each.
Usuthu, as AmaZulu are affectionately known, finished that campaign with 20 paltry goals on board. More importantly, they ended the season 13th on the league table, five points above relegated Polokwane City. Were it not for Ntuli’s prowess, who knows what might have happened to the team that season.
Tributes pour in
Since AmaZulu confirmed Ntuli’s death on Sunday, countless tributes have poured in from Premier League Soccer (PSL) clubs, as well as former coaches, teammates and opponents.
“Really sad news. Bongi joined us [on loan] at AmaZulu in January 2015 and turned our season around that year,” said Steve Barker, former Usuthu coach who is currently in charge at Stellenbosch.
Ntuli had married AmaZulu CEO Sinenjabulo Zungu (daughter of the club’s owner, Sandile Zungu) just a few months before his death.
“One the best forwards I’ve worked with. Such an amazing person on and off the field. My sincere condolences to Bongi’s family, the Zungu family and the entire AmaZulu family,” added Barker.
Sundowns and the South African Football Association (Safa) also sent their condolences after the striker’s death.
“The chairman and the Motsepe family, the board of directors, technical team, players, management, staff, supporters of Mamelodi Sundowns express their deepest condolences to the family and friends as we mourn the loss of AmaZulu striker and former Mamelodi Sundowns player Bonginkosi Ntuli,” Ntuli’s former club said on social media.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with his loved ones and teammates at this trying time.”
Safa said: “We as the South African Football Association would like to convey our sincerest condolences, deepest sympathy and heartfelt sorrow to his family, friends and the club during this difficult time.”
The PSL said a moment of silence in honour of Ntuli will be observed before the start of every Premiership, Motsepe Foundation Championship and DStv Diski Challenge fixture this week. DM