Monday, 18 March 2013

From Russia with love: All you ever wanted to know about Siyanda Xulu, but were afraid to ask

KwaMashu Kid: Bafana's Siyanda Xulu
Siyanda Xulu came Russian back home to South Africa yesterday, significantly encouraged by the news that BOTH of Bafana Bafana’s incumbent central defenders are now OUT of Saturday’s crucial World Cup qualifier.

Xulu moved to Rostov in Russia during the January transfer window – at R6m his move from Mamelodi Sundowns makes him the most expensive player in Gordon Igesund’s current squad – and was left out of the African Cup of Nations 23 after attending the gathering for the game against Malawi in a pre-AFCON friendly.

But with captain Bongani Khumalo and Orlando Pirates’ goal-scoring rock Siyabonga Sangweni both now out of contention, there is every chance Xulu, still just 21, will start at the Cape Town stadium.

Both Khumalo and Sangweni carry fascinating tales. Khumalo was backed to the hilt by Igesund when he was accused of being too good at English and even better at ball-watching during AFCON. But last Friday Igesund dismissed him thus: “Bongani is not even in the team at PAOK in Greece – and I hear he’s carrying a slight injury. So I didn’t pick him.”

But he DID pick Sangweni, who clearly played in the Soweto derby carrying the knee injury that was supposed to put him out for six weeks. Roger de Sa clearly felt gambling in front of 90,000 was the right thing to do – and his side duly managed to keep a cleansheet in a 0-0 draw with their arch-rivals. Sangweni’s leadership – if not his mobility – clearly made that possible.

Before the squad announcement, we had been told that both Sangweni and his former team-mate Tokelo Rantie, now at Malmo in Sweden, were unavailable. But Gordon picked them both. Was this an effort to keep Buccaneering fans happy? Was he worried that, by naming Tower Mathoho and Morgan Gould in central-defence – it Amakhosi goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune assuming the captain’s armband – we might face a footballing civil war?

None of this politicking bothers Xulu. A calm, older-than-his-years sort of guy, I got hold of Xulu in Rostov last week, a few days after he had been named Man of the Match after a 0-0 draw against Alaniya in front of an audience spanning the length of the world’s largest nation.

Just how excited was he to have found a place back in the squad so soon after his AFCON disappointment? “No look,” he said between the crackles and delays of the international telephone network, “Whenever I get picked, it’s an honour. I have always believed it is important to play for South Africa. I am so proud.”

Of course, those may just be words. But for my money, Xulu appears to put patriotism before cash.
The very mention of the sprawling township of KwaZulu outside Durban brings out a whole new Siyanda: “I grew up in KwaMashu,” he recalls, “It will always be home. I live here in Russia on my own in an apartment.

“At first I missed my family, my friends, all my loved ones soooo much. But now I am starting to get used to living alone. I’m going to fly a friend out after the World Cup game for company.

“And it’s great to be asked to come home for this game. But I have travelled a lot.

“Two years ago I went to Barcelona on trial but just as they said they were going to sign me to their academy, they restructured (Joan Laporta was deposed as club president) and it all fell through.

“I also went to Arsenal and trained with them for two weeks. Arsene Wenger had some very nice things to say but then Atletico Madrid made a bid for me – they heard what happened at Barca – but that fell through too.

“So I came back and played in Mamelodi before Rostov made their bid. It was a long story, the price kept going up, but eventually I made the move."

The busy town of Rostov is no stranger to South African imports. Matthew Booth, Tony Coyle, Rowan Hendricks, Bennett Mnguni and Japhet Zwane all played for the mid-table Russian Premier League outfit, which has undergone a number of name changes since the club's creation in 1930. The town itself is around the size of Durban, a port on the banks of the River Don.

They currently lie 12th in the RPL, way behind leaders CSKA Moscow, big-spending Anzhi and St Petersburg glamour club Zenit. But with a fair wind and a couple more wins, they should survive in the 16-team table with a four-point cushion currently keeping them clear of the relegation zone.

With nine games left this season, Xulu accepts: “It was tough, but now I'm quite happy in Russia. It’s just the weather. And the language. The only things I can say in Russian are “left”, “right” and “hi”. I am learning the language but it’s very difficult – even the letters are different!

“That’s why I am so happy to come home for this game. A chance to see everyone again. If I am picked to start the game, that’s great. I will do what I can. The World Cup in Brazil next year is very important, I would love to be there.

“But whatever happens, playing for South Africa has always been, will always be my No 1 dream.”

THIS article also appears tomorrow as my "Neal and Pray" column in


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