JOHANNESBURG – Leading may have always been in the genes of Thulani Hlatshwayo but captaining childhood and hometown team Orlando Pirates to their first piece of silverware in more than six years would be a dream come true.
Groomed at the renowned football academy of Ajax Cape Town (now Cape Town Spurs), Hlatshwayo had a foundation of being one of the best footballers in the land. But that alone wasn’t enough – he had to work hard.
His efforts finally paid dividends though, getting promoted to the Urban Warriors first team in 2009, while representing the SA junior national teams at various major tournaments – such as the Under-20 Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt.
But after a five-year successful stint with Ajax’s first team, where he was already the captain, he heeded the call to come back home. But not to Soweto, instead joining defunct Braamfontein-based side Wits where coach Gavin Hunt made him captain.
Hlatshwayo saw his hard work pay off in the 2016-17 season, captaining Wits to the MTN8 crown and Premiership title. But he realised his childhood dream this season, joining Soweto-based side Pirates from Wits.
At Pirates, Hlatshwayo has jumped the queue, co-captaining the club with Happy Jele, who has spent more time on the bench than on the pitch since his arrival. And with Pirates on the cusp of winning a trophy as they willl clash with Bloemfontein Celtic in the MTN8 final on Saturday, Hlatshwayo is expected to lead the line.
“Obviously, joining the team I grew up supporting as a youngster from Soweto is a success. I came to Pirates to succeed,” Hlatshwayo said.
“When I was young, I wanted to play for this team and win Cups. I feel I have the opportunity to take the first step by winning the MTN8.”
Hlatshwayo, moreover, is selfless – probably one of the reasons why he is also Bafana Bafana’s captain. Knowing that Jele remains his senior and friend off the pitch, he says he will gladly allow him to hoist the MTN8 trophy if they win at Moses Mabhida Stadium.
“Everyone knows that Happy is the club captain. He’s the one who leads us. For me, personally, I would allow him to lift the trophy. And I will be okay with it for him and me to lift the trophy,’’ Hlatshwayo said.
With knockout competitions mainly about results rather than performance, the heartbeat of Pirates’ defence is set to be solid, considering that Hlatshwayo will likely partner Ntsikelelo Nyauza – the only player other than Jele to have won a trophy with Pirates before.
But it is not only be this defensive trio who have Cup pedigree in the Bucs squad. Four former Wits players – Vincent Pule, Ben Motshwari, Thabang Monare and Gabadinho Mhango – won the double with the Clever Boys and can bring their experience to the team.
“Obviously as a player, I’ll draw inspiration from the Cup final that we played against Sundowns and won. There’s a couple of guys who were part of that team that won the MTN8. But looking at the current team we have, there are a lot of characters,” Hlatshwayo said.
It might be early days for Pirates in their league campaign as they are fourth on the standings – after two wins and four draws in six matches – but Hlatshwayo believes that winning the MTN8 can set a tone for their championship aspirations.