Speaking in an exclusive interview with Get French Football News, Amiens and South African international central midfielder Bongani Zungu discussed life in lockdown, humble beginnings and his ambition to depart the club for pastures anew this summer.
N.B. This interview was conducted last week, before the French government intervened to announce that Ligue 1 could not restart the 2019/20 season.
I thought we could start by taking about the current situation. We interviewed Haitam Aleesami, your teammate at Amiens, and he said that, a few weeks ago, you guys were just doing your individual training regimes, and that was it.
Have the club given you any more to do, and what’s day-to-day life like in lockdown for you at the moment?
Well, obviously as a professional player we are used to training every day, and so far it has been difficult to adjust to the fact that I have to train alone in the house. So yeah, they do give us some programmes on what to do… sometimes we call each other and go to a park or a training pitch, and just try to kick the ball and run a little bit. But yeah, that’s more or less what I do, and yeah it’s been difficult, but it’s something that needs to be done.
Presumably, you’ve had a lot more downtime and time to yourself recently. What have you been doing in general when you haven’t been training to keep yourself busy, or entertain yourself?
You know, to be honest I’m an indoor type of guy. In the normal cases, like when we go to training normally, after training I come back home, I chill, I play videogames, so yeah that’s just what I do every day; I play videogames, and I’ve improved my cooking skills!
Yeah! It’s just videogames… reading some books and also on the positive side, this lockdown has also helped me individually you know, just to think and to do things that I wouldn’t do normally.
So, moving on to your life and your career. Growing up in South Africa, did you always want to become a footballer?
Yeah. When I was young I played football… ever since, you know. It was something that I wanted to do, and I wanted to play in Europe. I was a young boy, growing up in the township, and I had a dream, and I had my family that helped me focus, always reminding me… because I come from an environment… a very very difficult background. So a lot of my friends, they stopped playing football and they focused on other things, which led them to difficult situations, you know, death, honestly… So yeah, so I chose this path and never looked back.
Do you think growing up in a difficult environment like that is what gave you the drive to make it, and the skills you have today to overcome difficult moments in your professional career, as well as your life in general?
Yeah, exactly. Because as I just said, I come from a difficult background. So right now, whenever I face any difficulties, or anything that a football player would go through, maybe a long-term injury… Not long ago I had an ACL… Difficult moments. But because I’ve got this natural mentality of trying to overcome situations, and also having my family besides me, it really helps a lot.
Who would you say growing up had the biggest positive influence on you, in your personal life?
Honestly, my dad, but we lost him in 2013 and… My mum, she always tries, because my dad… I would have a match and my dad would call me and tell me how I did, and I lost him. We lost him… and well I’ve got a big brother, and my mum… Every day to this day she calls me, she watches my matches and she’s there. But my dad played a very huge role, and in all my family, they’re really supportive and they’re there for me.
Of course. In terms of on the pitch, when you were young, was there any player in particular who was a big inspiration or influence for you, who made you think “Wow, I want to play like that,” or who just inspired you to get to the top of the game?
Well, I spoke about my dad… He used to make me watch a lot of football, you know, European football… He was a huge Manchester United fan, and we used to watch, and so I got used to it. And growing up, I looked up to Yaya (Touré). I used to watch a lot of games…
Barcelona back in the day, and then when he was at City, even when I became a professional football player. Because I’m the type of player that invests a lot of time in football; I watch what top midfielders do, or if they have books or documentaries or anything like that. So I can say Yaya Touré was the biggest influence; he was very influential, in terms of when he was on the pitch, and the things he did.
Do you think part of why he was an inspiration to you was because he went from playing as a centre-back to playing in midfield, and I read that it was the same for you, right?
Yeah. Basically, I played all the positions growing up! When I made my debut in the second division in South Africa for Dynamos I was a number 10, you know, and then I went to PSL (South African Premier Division) and played number 10 for Tuks (University of Pretoria F.C.), and then at (Mamelodi) Sundowns they decided to move me to 6…
And what you just said about Yaya also… There are a lot of players whose coaches are different. I’ll go as a 10 and a coach will see me as a 6. So those are the things about Yaya also that I read, and how that affected him or how it impacted him as a player, because it’s difficult to make that change.
So you mentioned making your debut for Dynamos in the second division. What was your journey like, from being a young kid who loved football to playing at that level?
Honestly, as I told you, I’ve always played football, and I always wanted to play in an academy. I tried to get into academies, and funnily enough, when I was 12-13, I went to Mamelodi Sundowns for a trial and they didn’t take me! The coach thought I was not ready, and I was very disappointed obviously – it just didn’t happen, I didn’t get scouted or chosen to play for any academy. When I was 18 years old I played for a team called Dixieland Stars, and it happened that Dynamos scouts saw me, and that’s when I joined Dynamos. And ever since then, I never looked back.
Well then you did go on to join Sundowns in 2013. In your mind, that must have been very satisfying, having gone from being on trial there and not making it to them actually pursuing you and making that big move.
Yes of course. To be honest, it was a dream come true. And, you know, I joined Sundowns when the team had like a seven year drought without trophies, and we were part of the generation that changed that. And Sundowns went on to dominate the whole of Africa, which was very inspiring. So yeah, being there, and actually when I signed for Sundowns, the U15s coach, I saw him and I went to remind him. I asked “Do you remember me?” and he didn’t remember me! But yeah, I went back home and worked even more hard. That’s why I’m here, and that’s all I can say.
That’s hilarious. You could’ve told him “Hey, I’m a bit more expensive now than when I was on trial!”
So you were talking about how you were a big part of that successful Sundowns side. You won trophies there before you made your move to Europe with [Vitória] Guimarães. When Sundowns went on to win the African Champions League, you were already in Portugal. Did you feel like you had missed out on something, or were you happy that you had made the move away when you did?
Well, I got injured. I had a very serious injury, so even if I was still a Sundowns player I wouldn’t have played. Part of me was just… I was happy for the team. I was happy, and I spoke to a lot of guys and they wished I was there. But I had to move to Portugal. I was not really really really disappointed for the fact that I should be there, because I was already in Europe, and was just looking forward to fully recovering from the injury.
You mention your injury, did that make your arrival in Europe more difficult? Your move was agreed for when your contract expires, but then you fractured your tibia and weren’t able to play until December.
So how hard was it to make that big move to Europe, but then to have to sit on the sidelines? Did that make it more difficult to adapt to life in Europe in general?
Yeah, that made it difficult, because firstly, when an African player moves to Europe, it’s always difficult. You get homesick, and I was homesick, and had to work hard on recovering, and it was difficult, you know. But I had to be strong. Now this takes us back to what we were talking about, having that strong mentality, the situations that I come from as a young kid, you know, mentally. And my family also…
I had to be strong, I had to realise that “okay, I’m here now. This is what I’ve always wanted,” and I just looked forward and worked hard. I had to recover and the club, Guimarães… They were very supportive. I recovered, I became fit, and after that I just performed, you know.
As you say, you’ve had a couple of big periods out with injury in your career. There was also the 2018-19 season with Amiens, where you missed most of the season with a knee injury…
How difficult is it, in that kind of situation, when you have to sit out on the sidelines, and you know your team are struggling, fighting to survive? How does that feel, and what goes through your mind?
It’s difficult. It’s difficult because you just want to play, you want to help the team… If someone asked me “What can you say?” or “What would be some advice for a player or young player who gets injured?” What I say is that you need to accept it. You need to accept the moment, that okay, this is the here and now, and then take it a day at a time. But of course, watching the team playing is difficult, but you can’t always be sad, you know.
You need to be in a happy environment, and with people that love you, people that are there for you. But that’s what I say, you know, just to accept that ok, this is what’s happening. But of course, when you watch football… I miss it, so this is like now, in this current time – everyone’s injured! Think about it, it’s like now you miss it, but you can’t, so you just have to create that happy environment, wherever you are. You need to understand and accept that there’s no football.
Sure, I think even the fans feel like they’re injured at the moment!
Exactly, everyone is injured!
While we’re talking about these hardships that you’ve had to overcome… I read in an article that you were the victim of a hijacking in 2014, when you were still playing for Sundowns.
If you don’t mind talking about it, what happened? And was that a difficult thing to overcome?
Yeah, well it was another difficult thing. What happened was I was driving… And the funny thing is this happened right in front of my parents’ house, like at the gate. So I was taking my young bro home, and a car came, and two guys came, and they started shooting. And my brother, he ran away… I told my younger brother to open the door and run. He ran, and I had to come out and… It was just a crazy moment.
But fortunately I just told them to take the car and leave, so that’s what happened. That’s where I come from, these things happen a lot. But that situation also helped me mentally, because now I’m more careful when I’m driving, you know. You need to be sure, you need to check what’s going on and stuff. So after all that, I picked [myself] up, I said “Okay, the positive thing is that nothing bad really happened, they just took the car.” It taught me how to be careful.
I guess it’s important to take lessons from all of these difficulties; I can’t even imagine experiencing something like that and taking it in your stride.
Was it difficult to stop that particular event, and also other events in your personal life from impacting your performances on the pitch, or do you find it easy to switch off your personal experiences when playing?
Well, football kind of helps me. Like, I switch off from the problems of the world and what’s happening when I play football, despite all that has happened. Every time when I’m training or I’m on the pitch, I know how to adjust and perform.
So moving back to your big move to Portugal and to Guimarães – did you find, and have you found that there are any key differences in the way football is played in South Africa, and how the game is played in Europe – so in Portugal and in France?
Was there a big learning curve, and any differences in your role as a midfielder?
It’s always going to be different in Europe. In Portugal, they focus more on the “tactics” part of the game. They move the ball quicker, the player has to be more efficient in decision-making… It’s just much quality all round. While here in France, it’s more physical, and more about transition football; you need to be strong. Because when I was in South Africa, yeah I had the height but I was small, you know.
In Portugal, they told me that: “Okay, with your height, you’re 1.86m. You need to go to the gym, because here it’s not only about playing football.” South African players, structure wise, are not big. They’re small and stuff. So they told me that “To succeed in this league, in Europe, you need to be physically fit, you need to be strong as a midfielder.” So to be honest, it’s different. Football here is different, and it helps a player improve, you know.
So when you came to the end of your time at Guimarães, you’d only been there for one season. I read that there were lots of clubs interested in you, even clubs like Sporting and Benfica.
Were you aware of any of this interest, and were you ever close to joining any other club?
Yeah, I was aware of everything. I spoke to the president of Guimarães, we spoke about it. To be honest, in my mind, I expected a move. I thought I would move. The club wanted me to extend my contract, but I just wanted to move. I was aware of the interest, but it just didn’t happen. I don’t know why, so I thought, “okay, it’s just boardroom things,” I don’t know why. But I was aware of what was happening. I wanted to leave the club, and it happened, and I came to Amiens.
Why did you decide on Amiens, of all teams?
Well, I spoke to the president of Guimarães. Well, he asked me to renew my contract, and I told him “No, I want to leave.” And he said “Ok.” The next morning I was told that they accepted a bid from Amiens, I was like “Okay, I’m happy.” So that’s why.
Having been there for several years now, what do you make of Amiens as a city and of the Picardy region in general – it’s a little different to Guimarães!
For me, the people here are friendly. They just support the team and want the team to survive. Our stadium is always full, and I’ve never had problems, like I will walk in the city and people are always like encouraging, even the neighbours, every time they see me! And I’m sure it’s like that with the other players.
The team is good, we always play to try and win, to survive. We don’t make it easy for teams to come here, in our home turf. Of course, this season has been difficult. But we’re starting to pick up, gaining confidence and the majority of the players were regaining their form before this whole coronavirus thing.
You mention that you guys went into a bad period of form, and that things have improved more recently. When we spoke to Haitam [Aleesami], he said you guys stopped focusing on being so offensive, and were putting unnecessary pressure on yourselves not to concede goals. Is that a fair assessment of what was going wrong in this spell?
Well, that’s his opinion. But for me, it’s only a matter of… The majority of the players in the team, they lost form, and of course when key players lose form it’s very difficult, and maybe things would go like Haitam said, you know.
Say you’ve got your number 9, he’s off form, your number 10, or your winger’s off form, then of course you’d rather go to the games and try to defend or protect yourself from losing the game. But yeah, that’s what I can say.
And like you say, things have picked up more recently. You’ve had some big results, like that incredible 4-4 draw with PSG, and then the 2-2 at the Vélodrome against Marseille.
What was the mood like around the team after those games, like in the dressing room? How was everybody feeling, and was the morale starting to pick up before this crisis?
Yeah, for some people. But for me, personally I was mad, especially after PSG… Leading 3-1 at the break, I mean come on man! You’re trying to survive. I was mad. I don’t care if it’s PSG, but no team in Ligue 1… I don’t even remember the last time any team scored three against PSG, or four, you know what I’m saying. So if you score four against PSG… And for us we were playing to survive.
So personally that’s what I was telling myself. I’ve been at the club for three years; I understand what it’s like to get results and to win. We’ve been in the same situation for the last two years; the first season was much better…
But it was heartbreaking to come out of that game. A lot of people were surprised, like “Oh wow, we played 4-4,” but come on. It’s 3-1, I mean come on, we can grind, we can… And they scored three corner kicks I think. It’s heartbreaking. But okay, as I said, it’s all about taking the positives out of every situation.
Sure. And this season is obviously a new experience in a way because Christophe Pélissier left, the coach who brought you in. He’s now doing very well at Lorient with them top of Ligue 2…
What did you make of him as a coach? And was it difficult for you guys when he left at the end of his contract?
Yeah, well as a coach he was a very nice guy. Some coaches they don’t take time to come to the dressing room and talk to the players, you know, talks like, for example, “Who is the best player in the world? I would say Messi,” you know. And he would come into the dressing room and we would just laugh. He was very close to the players. He’s a coach who knows what he wants, and the message to the players was very clear.
But all I can say is that he’s somebody you can talk to, you can go to, and he’s a very good coach, honestly. When he left, of course it was kind of… A lot of players were very disappointed, because he’s been at the club for long, and some of the players, he comes from the 3rd division with them. And a lot of people were mad, but that’s life. Now, honestly, I’m happy for him, and I’m not surprised that his team is doing well in Ligue 2.
And what’s it like working under Luka Elsner? At 37, he’s a pretty young coach. What’s it been like working with him, and has it been a very different experience?
Yeah. He’s a very demanding coach, and he also is very good at communicating with players. And of course, this season hasn’t gone the way we would have liked, or the way he would have liked as a coach, because of course, a new season… A lot of people expect, “New coach, fireworks!” And stuff. But we’re in this together, and he works hard. And as I said, we’re starting to pick up, and things were starting to look good for everyone, including him. So yeah, so far so good. I just hope, if the league can resume, I just hope we can save the club, and hopefully he stays for long at the club and improves.
Last season, you had your problems with injury. But this season you’ve been able to play consistently, you’ve already made 24 appearances…
Is there anything you’re doing differently, or that the club are doing differently, in terms of your fitness regime, or the intensity of your training, that’s helping you to stay fit?
Yeah, well that’s a matter of individual choice, you know. Because sometimes, of course we train, but I do a lot of work by myself on the side, and I’ve got an agent who is there for me a lot. We’ve got video analysts, we talk about how to improve my game, etc… And I’ve got guys that help me outside the pitch on how to play, improve my technique.
So yeah, it’s more of like, personal things. And also on the medical side, we’ve got physiotherapists who help me a lot, and give me tips on what to do in order to strengthen my knee. So yeah, I’ve been doing a lot of individual training on the side, and that has really really helped me. Because when I play a game, I feel better, I feel good, I feel light, and I don’t really feel pain in the knee.
And now that you are able to play again more consistently, how would you assess your season individually so far? In terms of your own performances and contribution.
Well, of course there’s always space for improvement. But honestly I’ve been playing well. One game that I really… We played against PSG, and I was doing well. Yeah, I can say that before this whole coronavirus thing, the last 8-10 games I was doing well. I’m just looking to improve every time, and hopefully I can continue and help the team.
So moving onto something which I wish we didn’t have to discuss, but which was a big part of the Amiens season last year… The issue of racism in football, and racism in general. In April, Prince Gouano was subjected to racist abuse from a section of the Dijon fans.
You were on the pitch at that point having come on as a sub, and were part of the group that confronted the fans. Had you ever experienced anything like that in your professional career? And what’s it like, experiencing such an abhorrent incident?
Yeah, well I can say I have experienced it. When I was in Guimarães, I was playing with Moussa Marega… And it was not only for me, you know. Because of course, like Gouano… We’re with him, he’s our brother… So yeah it happened in Portugal, and it’s not nice. It’s not nice. Actually now, it’s boring, you know. It’s boring, honestly. It’s stupid. But yeah it happened to Prince, and all we had we had to do was be there for him, and try to show him… For me it’s just boring and stupid.
I actually remember seeing a clip of Marega more recently at Porto of when people in the crowd at Guimarães, where you guys used to play, were abusing him, and he wanted to leave the pitch, but some of his teammates and opposition players were trying to keep him on the pitch. And even the coach seemed to try to encourage him to stay on.
Do you think that teammates should be doing more for the players who are subjected to racist abuse, and maybe that the match officials, or powers that be, should be doing more to try to fight this issue than they are already?
Of course. Because you know it happened to him, he experienced it. His teammates have to show him some support. It’s more of like, being with him. Because I saw the video, and the teammates and the coach were trying to stop him… No, it’s not nice. It’s awful. They have to be there, they have to stop and do as he says. If we have to go off the pitch, you know. So I saw the video. I know Marega, he’s my friend. We talk. I was not happy.
I was not happy for the fact that Guimarães, a team where he went and played for… And this thing happened. It was just disappointing to see. But he’s good, he’s strong. But I just didn’t like it when the Porto players tried to stop him. They need to be there. And it’s something that we need to go against. Everyone needs to go against this thing and try to stop it.
Of course. I think if we can increase the punishments for fans, like lifetime stadium bans and even criminal action, and officials need to stop and abandon matches if this kind of thing continues. But when it’s your own teammates that are stopping you from leaving the pitch because they view the game or the result as more important… It’s pretty awful to watch.
Anyway, moving on to something more positive. It’s fair to say you had a difficult 2018-19 season with Amiens. After such a tough season with injuries, what was it like to actually play with the national team in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations? Were you ever worried that you didn’t make the squad, or did you have faith?
I had faith, you know. I was not playing regularly, I was not 100% ready to start a match, and maybe I started like two games out of twelve, I think, if I’m not mistaken. Well Stuart Baxter called me to the team, and I had to go. I had to work hard. And everybody knew, the players knew, everybody saw “Okay, I can play, but I’m not fully fit.”
But we went to Dubai, it was so hot… And we trained, and I worked hard. And I didn’t actually play the first game against Ivory Coast, and in the second game, I scored. And I went on to have a good tournament and I was happy.
Yeah, you guys had a terrific tournament. You knocked out Egypt who were the hosts, and the goal you guys scored was beautiful, by the way! The team were impressive, and you scored a couple of very important goals…
The winner against Namibia in the group and the equaliser against Nigeria in the quarter-finals. And also, in the past you’ve scored some big goals for Amiens, you’ve scored in the Portuguese Cup final.
Do you consider yourself a kind of big game player? Are you able, perhaps more than other to players, to handle the pressure and come up with big contributions in these games?
To be honest, yes! I love playing big games. As I mentioned, the games against Marseille in France, against PSG… Those games, they’re nice, I love them! And yeah, I can say I can play big games. It’s an opportunity to shine, it’s an opportunity to showcase what you can do, because a lot of people are watching.
Not to say that playing against other teams… But you know here in France, playing against Dijon is different to playing against PSG. Some games are more hard, they’re about transitions and everything. But when we play against big clubs, it’s more football, a lot of thinking, doing a lot of interceptions, etcetera.
So I love playing such games. I get motivated, because my strength is that I love to play. I’m very good on the ball, and when we play against those teams… Despite the fact that we are Amiens, we are considered as one of the smallest teams in Ligue 1… But there are times when you are gonna have to play. And one thing that I always say to my teammates, or midfield partner is that they’re not expecting us to play. Of course, because they’re expecting us to panic, to kick the ball high and collect the second ball. So I just love playing in big games. They’re kind of nice and interesting!
Sure. And as you say, at Amiens, there’s maybe less pressure and less expectation, so in those kind of matches you have nothing to lose.
In these matches you always seem to score headers – is that your favourite kind of goal to score?
Well, I remember when I was still in South Africa, coach Pitso [Mosimane] at Sundowns used to shout at me that “You are a tall but you don’t head the ball! You don’t score!” And that has been part of my game that I worked hard on, and I wanted to improve. I wanted to have an impact on corner kicks or free kicks. So yeah, I’ve been working so hard on it, and now I see the results: I do score headers, I’ve scored for Amiens in a cup game. So it’s something that I was working hard on improving.
Do you think Bafana Bafana have a good chance to qualify for the next World Cup?
Yeah, we are expected to qualify for the AFCON, for the World Cup. After what we displayed at the AFCON, of course everyone is now expecting us to improve from doing well at the AFCON. So I’m expecting our team to do well, so hopefully the team will do good.
Obviously at Amiens you have quite a few talented players: Serhou Guirassy; Gaël Kakuta who, on his day, is capable of doing magic things; Mendoza; Prince Gouano, to name a few.
Who do you think is maybe a player who should be more appreciated? Who is underrated or underappreciated, in general, by fans or by the media, and should people pay more attention or respect to?
In football, in general, it’s all about performance. And here, the guys that you’ve mentioned, they always give 100%, and I’ve never heard of anyone or anything saying bad things, or that they need to improve. A guy like Gaël Kakuta, me and him have got an understanding in the match: I give him the ball, and we work on it in training, and sometimes I don’t even look, I know that he’s there – you know what I’m saying? So yeah, even Guirassy…
We talk… Yeah I never really see or hear about a top player or a guy who’s performing well, and that maybe a journalist would say anything negative. Maybe they do, but I don’t read the newspapers because of the language! So it’s always positive vibes.
Good stuff. And you talk there about your footballing relationship with Guirassy and with Kakuta.
Who are your closest friends in the Amiens squad?
Well, like three years ago there was Gaël, you know, of course… Prince Gouano, because we played together at Guimarães, [he] is a very good friend of mine. Now Haitam [Aleesami] is my friend, we get along. We’re actually the same, we’re troublemakers in the dressing room!
We’re the same. Saman Ghoddos also. I’m just blessed with the fact that I kind of get along with everyone in the team, and I never have problems. But the guys I mentioned… Gaël of course, he left for Spain, he came back. We’re close, we talk, you know. So the guys that I just mentioned, those are the people that I really spend time with.
As the troublemakers in the dressing room, have there been any kind of pranks or practical jokes that you guys have done to other players or to any of the staff.
Not really. We just like to create arguments! There will be like, an argument, and me and Haitam will be the culprits. We’ve got a lot in common, me and that guy.
So, you’ve had some pretty incredible career moments – winning titles in South Africa, playing in a cup final in Portugal, reaching the quarter-finals of AFCON.
What would you consider to be your greatest achievement so far in football?
First of all, being part of the team that changed Mamelodi Sundowns. But the biggest I can say… Getting to the quarter-finals of the AFCON. I would’ve hoped to go for more. It’s one of the biggest tournaments in Africa. And being the top scorer with two goals!
Yeah, just how I played and how I was enjoying the games, against Egypt we spoke of. We spoke about the love I have for playing big games. It was a big game, it was packed. I was excited, I was happy. So I can say in Egypt, representing Bafana and the performances I showed personally… I was happy about that.
Beyond this season, do you plan on staying at Amiens?
Honestly, I don’t know if you heard… I almost left in January, and I think the club understands and they know that I’m looking to spread my wings, to get a new challenge, and to be honest I’m ready for that. But you don’t know what the future holds. I love the club; the president is amazing, and the fans… But personally I would like to move on with my career, and hopefully it happens.
And if you do make a move, is there a certain team or a certain league that you see as a realistic destination for you, based on what was going on in January? Or if not, is there somewhere you’d like to go to?
I would love to play in Spain, in La Liga. I think the league is nice, the teams play football, and yeah I would like to hopefully get a club in Spain.
And one final question – personally speaking, what are your main objectives or goals in football going forward?
I would like to play in the Champions’ League, or maybe one day play in England. I don’t know, you never know! So play in the Champions’ League, play in England or in La Liga in one of the big teams.