Bafana call-up catches Nhlapo by surprise

Tumelo "Big Six" Nhlapo yesterday described his 11th hour Bafana Bafana call-up for the Africa Cup of Nations in Ghana as an early birthday gift.

Tumelo "Big Six" Nhlapo yesterday described his 11th hour Bafana Bafana call-up for the Africa Cup of Nations in Ghana as an early birthday gift.

This was after Nhlapo was roped into the team as a replacement for the injured Vuyo Mere, ironically his Free State home boy.

"It's the last thing that one was waiting for to happen, especially considering that the team was announced in November," said Nhlapo.

The straight-talking Bloemfontein Celtic versatile player is no stranger to representing South Africa. He has featured for Majimbos, Amajita and the Under-23s.

He was also part of the Bafana Bafana squad during the Cosafa Cup in Atteridgeville in August but did not get a chance to play.

Nhlapo, playing regularly as a holding midfielder, is one of the most gifted South African players.

He had his own fan club when Majimbos featured in the 2007 Africa Under-17 Championships in Gambia where he was one of the best players of the competition.

Sowetan caught up with Nhlapo in Three Rivers in the Vaal yesterday on his way to OR Tambo International Airport from his parents' home in Tumahole (Parys).

In this interview, Nhlapo chats to Sowetan's Ramatsiyi Moholoa (RM) on his call-up to Bafana Bafana, his ambitions, background and childhood dreams.

RM: You were named this morning Bafana Bafana coach Carlos Alberto Parreira as a replacement for Vuyo Mere. How does it feel to be in the team?

TN:My bra, I still can't find a suitable word to describe my feelings. I could not believe it when Kumbulani Konco ( Celtic manager) broke the news to me this morning.

I was not sure whether to jump or cry, but the whole thing has sunk in now that I'm on my way to the airport with Bafana Bafana manager Sipho Nkumane.

I did not lose hope when I was not named in the initial team to Ghana. I just told myself that I had to work hard to go to the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations in Angola.

For now, I can only say it is an early birthday gift for me as I will be turning 20 on the day ( January 20) the tournament in Ghana will be starting.

RM: What was the reaction from your family, friends and relatives after they heard about your selection?

TN: We are a religious family, so we prayed after it was announced that I will be part of the Bafana Bafana squad going to Ghana.

RM: Are you not intimidated by the fact that you will be in the same team with your role models such as Aaron Mokoena and Sibusiso Zuma?

TN: Conversely, it will be a great motivation for me. I have met some of them in one way or the other. For me, it will be great to be with them, I hope to learn a lot.

You will recall that I was with Bafana Bafana during the Cosafa Cup, though the overseas-based players were not there but one is now familiar with the set-up in the team.

RM: What do you think about Bafana Bafan's chances in Ghana?

TN: Pretty good, for me I think it will be great to target the semifinals for now. Once we are in the semifinals, we should really go all the way to the final and win it.

The technical staff have selected a strong squad of youth and experience. It is good that we have several players with previous Afcon experience.

But I must say it won't be easy for all the participating countries. An added advantage is that almost all of us have several players based in Europe.

RM: Many talent scouts in South Africa and other parts of the world use the tournament in Ghana to look for players.

If you had a choice, where would you like to further your professional soccer career.

TN: I will go anywhere in the world, as long as the offer is good to support my family. Football is a career where you play for a short period.

RM: Big Six, I have known you for more than six years as an influential Majimbos member. Can we also expect those telling passes if you get a chance to play in Ghana.

TN: Yeah, but the most important thing is to play as a unit first. I had no idea that I will one day find myself playing for Bafana Bafana in such a big tournament.

Playing for Majimbos and other junior national teams have helped prepare me for competitions in Africa and other continents.

RM: You are one of the many popular graduates of Harmony Academy in the Free State, you must be happy most of your mates are playing professional soccer.

TN: Very happy to see youngsters such as Keamogetse Owolf, Kamohelo Maboya are now with me at Celtic, Koloko Mokhethi, Tumelo Mmokwa (all African Warriors) and Moeketsi Madibo (BidVest Wits).

We also have Vumile Nxako, who is still at school but serves as Amajita's number one goalkeeper. We used to have a great team at Harmony, no wonder all the school soccer competitions between 2004 and 2006.

RM: How did you land at Harmony, an academy which also has a high school?

TN: Former head coach of the academy (Molefi Ntseki) spotted me during the provincial trials in Tumahole, I spent four and half years at the academy.

RM: Tell us a bit about your move to Celtic.

TN: It all happened mid 2007 after Celtic officials heard about me. They invited me to train with them for a week before going back to the school.

They called me a few days later to offer me a professional contract. I's a dream come true because I have always wanted to play professional soccer.

RM: Who is your favourite overseas player?

TN: Tottenham Hotspur's Ivorian international Didier Zokora. He is a great player, a marvel to watch when in possession.

RM: What about locally?

TN: None other than John Maduka, the man is humble despite having achieved so many things in football in the past decade or so.

John is also an inspirational leader.

RM: The name of the professional soccer club that you grew-up supporting.

TN: It was Kaizer Chiefs, now my heart is with Celtic because they are the ones putting a loaf of bread on my table every day.

RM: In conclusion, we all know that Siwelele are hard to please. Does it put you under pressure to always win.

TN: We always try hard to impress them.