It was double joy for midfielder Lebogang Phiri when he left his Danish club and signed for a new one in France, and also called up for Bafana Bafana squad to replace the injured Holland-based Kamohelo Mokotjo in the 25-man squad to face Nigeria in the opening round of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.
The match will be played on Saturday, 10 June 2017 at Godswill Akpabio International Stadium in Uyo State, Nigeria.
Kickoff is at 17h00 local time (18h00 SA Time).
SAFA Media caught up with Phiri and spoke to him about his move, his call-up and generally his life.
Matlhomola Morake: Welcome back, how are you feeling being in camp with Bafana Bafana?
Lebogang Phiri: First of all thank you, it’s always an honour getting a call up from the national team and every player wants to represent their country at the highest level, and this is it. I will be playing amongst great players, from local and abroad, it’s a good platform for me to showcase what I have as a player.
MM: Not many people really know about Lebogang Phiri, tell us more about you.
LP: I am from the streets of Alexandra township, I played for Bidvest Wits juniors before leaving for Europe. I spent most of my time playing for Brondby in Denmark and now I have just got a contract in France. I am only 22 years old. I didn’t spend a long time playing football in South Africa, so people don’t really know much about me. I am a midfielder, hard working and dedicated to my craft. I am pushed by my family, where the biggest motivation comes from for me, nothing else and that’s what got me this far.
MM: You have spent a long time in Denmark, how was life there?
LP: I had a very good spell in Denmark, but it was also really tough in the first few months because of the language barrier, the cultural diffences as well, but once I got my footing right, Denmark became a second home for me. I have played there for four years as a professional and I left the country as a favourite of the supporters. I think I have now done enough in the league to take the next step in terms of my career and I think the one I took (of going to France) is an indication of how hard I worked and the name that I made for myself in that country – it’s been a wonderful four years in the club and it has helped me to be where I am now.
MM: Starting a new chapter in your life….
LP: It is similar to me moving from South Afrca in Denmark – it’s a big jump, big cultural difference – especially because at that time I was just 18 years old. Now I am little more matured in terms of making decisionss. I am going to France with a diffent perspective, more open and going to learn because the learnig curve is always the most important or if you don’t want to learn you won’t succeed. And I think the first thing that is going to be a challenge is the language, so I need to work myself up in terms of grasping it and the grammar as quickly as I can because football is a worldly thing – so that’s not going to be a problem because I am footballer, I was born and bred as a footballer and I will keep on working harder. But in terms of the lifestyle, learning the culture, learning the professionalsm that comes with the league itself, it’s gonnna be important for me to learn and make the best out of it.
MM: How much do you about you new club?
LP: The good thing is that I met with my new coach the day before I signed for the club. He picked me up at the airport and we had a good talk. He is a very well-rounded coach and well-balanced. He played for Paris St. Germain, he coached there as well. Now he has this project with Guingamp for the next three years, they finished 10th this season, a very good position by their standards. They are small club, based on the west of France. They were voted to have the Best Suppporters in Ligue 1 last season, their pitch was voted the second Best Pitch in France last seaason, therefore it is a small club with a lot of ambition and has a lot of drive as well. They are also a selling club and they play very good football and for me, considering the stature of my body, it is the perfect destination to take the next step forward.
MM: Started from youth ranks in SA, moved to Denmark, now in France – what next?
LP: For now I haven’t thought of the next step in terms of moving away from France, right now I just need to do my utmost best, just like I did in Denmark – build a foundation, brick by brick. I think I have really put a good base for me as a player and now I just need to continue with that, and going to Fraance is a big step for me, so I just need to focus on the small steps that come with the big step I have taken to be in France. I must work hard to get into the team, and show the coach in France what I am made of, give him the confidence that if you play me I will work for the club, the team, the players, and for the coach. I will do my level best, I will grow and develop more because I am not as compete a player as I want to be at that level, so I still have a lot of things to work on, and that is what I am focused on right now.
MM: Joining the likes of Keagan Dolly and Kermit Erasmus in France, how does that help South African football, in particular Bafana Bafana?
LP: That’s a big thing for South African football – the more we have players playing abroad the better as it lightens up the national team as well, it gives it a little bit of more flavour because we have different dimensions of football, we play different styles but when we come back to the national team we have different aspects of the game that we bring in. Going to France and being a part of Keagan’s and Kermit’s progress is a big thing for me as a player because now I can make a home out of a place where it’s away from home. I will have people I can call brothers more so because we play together in the national team. So it is really a big thing and a big step for us as South Africans to take the chances to go abroad. I respect the fact that a lot of players are given the chance to play overseas and they take it, but of course some don’t get that opportunity. I will always encourage players to take that step to get out of that comfort zone and go to explore the world of football because it is basically the same, just the cultures that differ, but at the end of the day football speaks the same language. So take your chances when you have them, make the most out of them and you can always come back home later. You need to take the chance and show the world that the talent I have was nurtured in South Africa and can also be a part of world stage football.
MM: Player/s that has inspired you the most?
LP: I have a lot of players who have inspired me in football, some in South Africa. But of late it has to be Lebohang Manyama who is from the same neighbourhood as me in Alexandra. He has been doing very well this season and he has pushed me to a certain level. Once upon a time I used to live in a shell but now I see that coming from a small township in South Africa doesn’t mean that you can’t make the greatest of careers. He has had a superb season and it’s great to acknowledge that we have such a powerhouse like him that hails from Alexandra. He has been a big motivation for me, and he got me thinking “if Lebo can do that and he comes from the same area as me, that means I can also achieve certain things too.” It’s lovely to find encouragement and motivation from people who are closest to you and are around you.
MM: What are your thoughts on the upcoming clash against Nigeria?
LP: I am confident, especially about all the players who have been picked. We have been doing very well as a team, we have a new technical staff with different players as well, we just need to find common goal as to what we want to achieve, and if we have the same goal we stand a very good chance to succeed. Of course, they are a tough opposition especially in Nigeria, but with the confidence the players have in this squad, and the experience that we have, we should utilise every opportunity that we have going into the game and express ourselves – and that’s the most important thing to do. It’s going to be a very tough game and a tough travel as well, but it’s all mental and if we get that one right then everybody will be prepared to play the game and bring out the best performance ever.
MM: Nigeria has been very tough on us in the past, can we change that?
LP: I always say football is the same and right now it’s different players, different eras – we just need to stay focused on the ultimate goal, which is qualification. We need not take it as an event but take it as a normal game with the pressures and responsibilities that it will come with. We have to work hard to ensure we get these qualification off to a perfect start. They have big guns in Ahmed Musa, Victor Moses and all these good players who are solid, but we also have great players, therefore we have to work as a team because victory will not just pitch up, we have to work for it, regardless of who is on the pitch. We have to fight for our country, the badge and come out tops. We have to show passion and if we don’t make it with all three points let’s hold our heads high for we would have given a great performance.
MM: Personally, you missed out on the Olympics in Rio, how did you feel?
LP: It was a very tough period for me when I realised my name was on the list but the club would not release me – I went a bit “mental” at the club because this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I had spoken to the Sports Director, to the coach, and told them this was the only chance I got to play in the Olympics and also I had a year left on my contract, and for me to get a better contract elsewhere in Europe and make a bit of a sale for the club, I felt the Olympics was the best platform for me to showcase my talent. Thanks to the coaches that selected me, that showed faith in me as a player, to be part of the squad but unfortunately I could not go. It was tough, really really tough. Of course I wish there is another chance to play in the Olympics some day, but if not I am happy for the boys that went there because it was a really good platform for South African football.
MM: Never played in AFCON and World Cup before, do you see this is your chance to do so?
LP: I would love to do that with Bafana Bafana. But if things don’t go well and I am not part of this squad, I would love to see my country qualifying for the two tournaments because it’s a big stage for all the players, but more so for the country as it showcases the abundance of talent in the country. And also, once you qualify for things it opens many doors. It’s also very important for us to qualify and I have a strong belief that we will do so as I see we have a great bunch of players.
MM: Your message to the young ones?
LP: To be honest, to make it in life nothing comes easy. It’s a very difficult path to travel. I come from humble beginnings, my family is my drive. We didn’t have the best of lives but I always had that dream, always had the passion, always had goals I had set out for myself. The most important goal I set myself was that I want to work for my family, and I made sure I worked hard for it. I made sure that before I am ok my family was ok first, taking them out of poverty and making sure we were a strong family with a strong base and that gave me blessings. I also stayed tuned to who I am as a human being, don’t get lost in the crowd. There are a lot of things that distract us as human beings but if you have a path set out for yourself, those distractions may come and you may lose track but if you are focused enough you will always come back to the right path. Set goals that you can achieve – and don’t set realistic goals because once you achieve them you don’t have ambition to go forward. Rather set unrealistic goals because you will always have the motive to go forward, and when you achieve a little bit it won’t be enough, you will want more and it will never be enough which gives you a lot of drive and ambition. That I am 22 and in the national team is one of those goals – it was always a dream of mine to play for Bafana Bafana but I didn’t know that it would come so soon, I have always wanted to play abroad but I didn’t know it will happen so quickly as well. I am staying level-headed and have respect for everyone especially my parents, my little sister and my brother because they are the most important people in terms of grooming me as a person. My girlfriend and my son are also very important to me. I owe them the world therefore I have to work hard to make sure I maintain the level I am at and stay humble, that’s the most important for me.
MM: Seeing you in the PSL some day?
LP: Of course, how can I say no to that. That’s a big drive for me, and I had wished to play here before I left for Europe unfortunately it didn’t happen, but one day I will come back and showcase the skills I aqcuired abroad, the technical and tactical ability that I learnt during my process of playing outside the country. I want to bring this home and give back to the country that birthed me. As for who I will play for, it will depend at that time which teams want me because I believe going to where you are wanted is the most important thing about this game. But then I am a winner, I want to win things and the club that will get my services is the one that has those qualities.
Born: 9 November, 1994
Club: Guingamp (France)
National team debut: v Lesotho, COSAFA Cup, 18 June, 2016
Last game played: v Botswana, COSAFA Cup, 25 June, 2016
First goal scored: v Swaziland, COSAFA Cup, 22 June, 2016
Caps per club: Brondby (Denmark) 3
A product of the heralded BidVest Wits academy … moved to Brondby in January 2013 without ever playing in the Premier Soccer League … despite being on a youth contract was put straight into the first team at Brondby and has been a regular since … born in Alexandra.
National Team Games Statistics
|v Lesotho 1-1||COSAFA Cup|
|v Swaziland 5-1||COSAFA Cup||scored|
|v Botswana 3-2||COSAFA Cup|