Zimbabwe/South Africa: Midnight Express, the Last Man Standing

By Robson Sharuko
HE is called the Midnight Express but Helman Mkhalele could also be dubbed “The Last Man Standing.”

The former Bafana Bafana star is set to return to Harare next month, for a World Cup showdown, between Zimbabwe and South Africa.

And, he will be the only man, among those who were involved in the last two World Cup battles, between the fierce rivals, who will be involved, in the latest Battle of the Limpopo.

The Warriors are scheduled to host Bafana Bafana, in the opening group match, of the 2022 World Cup qualifiers, at the National Sports Stadium, on September 3.

It will be the first World Cup battle between the two neighbours since they last met, exactly 20 years ago, at the FNB Stadium, in Johannesburg, on May 5, 2001.

First half goals from Shaun Bartlett and Benni McCarthy powered the hosts to a 2-1 win with Peter Ndlovu converting a second half penalty, for the Warriors.

Ten months earlier, the two teams had clashed, in the reverse fixture, at the National Sports Stadium.

The match ended prematurely, after referee Fallah Ndoye, was forced to call off the game, about 10 minutes before the end.

A deadly stampede, which followed Bafana Bafana’s second goal, amid commotion inside the packed bays, triggered by fans fleeing from teargas, ended with 13 Warriors supporters dead.

Ironically, the setting of the reverse fixture, in the City of Gold, could not have been more poignant.

A month before Bafana Bafana hosted the Warriors, the worst sporting disaster in South Africa unfolded, at Ellis Park, just about 12 kms from the FNB Stadium.

Forty three people died in a stampede, during a Soweto Derby match, between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates.

Mkhalele, then one of the stars of the Bafana Bafana team, featured in both matches, in Harare and Johannesburg.

He is the only man standing, among those who were in the trenches back then, set to be involved next month.

He is now the assistant coach, in the South African national team set-up, headed by Belgian gaffer Hugo Broos, who won the 2017 AFCON title, in charge of the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon. Mkhalele selected the Bafana Bafana side, which recently won the COSAFA Cup, but was not involved in the final matches, after testing positive for Covid-19.

The team was guided by Morena Ramoreboli and Vela Khumalo.

Mkhalele, though, was in charge when Bafana Bafana beat Uganda 3-2, in a friendly international, in June this year.

Broos was unavailable, after he took leave, to get his second Covid-19 vaccination jab, back home in Belgium.

“When we sat down with coach Hugo Broos I shared from my own playing experience saying that when I look at players, I don’t look at the teams they are playing for,” Mkhalele told reporters after the victory.

“I just look at the talent that will provide the solution to my problems.

“So even if that player, for instance, plays for Black Leopards but I see that he can provide solutions as a player for me, then we’ll pick him.

“When that profile of player then joins up with the team, we’ll just be working on the mindset then.

“We’ll work at to convince them that when you wear that South African jersey, it’s not there as a stepping stone. We all need to know what wearing that jersey means, and it’s not only the Bafana Bafana status.

“But, it carries the hopes, and dreams, of the entire nation where young South African kids, and also citizens who are abroad, have something to look towards.

“We want to make sure that our kids have something that will serve as an inspiration in order to improve their lives for the better.

“So, if Bafana Bafana does well, I’d say the whole country changes in a positive way, and that is what I’d say we’ll be working on.”

He believes Bafana Bafana, who failed to qualify for the 2021 AFCON finals in Cameroon next year, will become a competitive side once again, under their guidance, and leadership.

“I think once the boys start to understand our philosophy, I believe that we are going to build a very strong team that we’ll be competitive – not only in continental football but in world football,” he told IOL.

“South Africa has the talent.”

Twenty one years after Mkhalele and his teammates came here, for that ill-fated World Cup qualifier, the scars, inflicted by the biggest sporting disaster in this country, have not yet healed. The youngest, among those who died, was Alec Dean Fidesi.

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He was only six and was also a fan of local football giants Dynamos, who took time to remember him, last year, on the 20th occasion of that disaster.

“The 13 lives lost on the 9th of July 2000, at the National Sports Stadium in the wake of crowd melee shall, forever, be dearly and fondly missed by all members of the family of football in Zimbabwe,” said Dynamos chief executive, Jonathan Mashingaidze.

“The tears may have dried since then but the memories of those precious souls lost on the day, remain etched on our hearts.

“The 13 candles, who had joined the other fans to rally behind the Warriors against Bafana Bafana on the fateful wintry Sunday, got blown away by the violent and chilly winds.

“Dynamos Football Club, as one of the clubs whose supporters form the core of the Warriors’ band of fans, would like to console and comfort the families of the thirteen Patriots who violently lost their lives while supporting their beloved Warriors.”

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