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How playing in Egypt has toughened up Bafana's new young teen star Links

Neo Links of South Africa during the 2018 COSAFA plate semifinals match between Namibia and South Africa at Old Peter Mokaba Stadium, Polokwane on 05 June 2018.
Neo Links of South Africa during the 2018 COSAFA plate semifinals match between Namibia and South Africa at Old Peter Mokaba Stadium, Polokwane on 05 June 2018.
Image: Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

Gift Links has toughened up physically and increased his speed of thinking on the ball in his first six months in Egypt‚ and the results were evident in a bright debut for Bafana Bafana at the Cosafa Cup.

Links's skill‚ quickness of thinking and ability to get free of closed situations‚ always looking for a positive pass‚ were instrumental in the young‚ emerging Bafana's 4-1 Plate semifinal win against Namibia on Tuesday night.

South Africa meet Botswana in the Plate final at Peter Mokaba Stadium on Friday (kickoff: 3pm).

Links (19)‚ after a first half of the 2017-18 season plagued by injury and writing his matric exams‚ had fallen out of favour at Platinum Stars.

His five performances in the 2017 Caf Confederation had drawn the eye of Alassiouty Sport‚ who made a lucrative offer while Links was at Maritzburg United‚ hoping to sign there.

"At first I wanted to reject it. Even my parents were not happy about it. But at the last minute I decided‚ 'No‚ I will take the opportunity'. An opportunity only comes once‚” he said.

In Egypt‚ Links and Namibian Benson Shilongo‚ also signed from Stars‚ have been playing. Shilongo has six goals‚ and Links has started 12 out of 14 games.

He has toughened up markedly in the constricted‚ physical environment of militaristically organised Egyptian football.

He is a lot less slender‚ and he can get stuck into challenges and will not get shrugged off the ball so easily.

"Everything‚ the culture‚ the religion‚ is totally different. There's nothing that even looks like here in South Africa‚” Links said.

"Footballers don't go out to clubs‚ partying‚ or whatever.

"The team did really well‚ as a small club who got promoted two years ago‚ to finish ninth. And we reached the semifinals of the Egypt Cup‚ where we lost on penalties against Smouha [Alassiouty had beaten Al Ahly 1-0 in the quarters].

"The coaches like to play counter-pressing‚ and there are a lot of crosses for the big strikers.

“And it's quick - there's no time to think. When you get the ball they are on you. It's very physical.

"Every day we do those drills on how to take on players. The coach instructs me on how‚ if I receive the ball I must know where I'm going already.

"Most of the players tend to use their physique instead of their smartness. I know I can't compete with them with physique so I just use my mind."

On the field players communicate in English and Arabic‚ and Links has so far only learned a few words of the latter to get by.

Alassiouty are based in a resort in Beni Suef‚ about two hours south along the Nile from Cairo.

Links‚ somehow‚ escaped the attention of the junior national teams‚ and having just played five games in the PSL he did not really know a lot of the Bafana squad when he arrived in Polokwane.

"My debut was unbelievable for me‚” he said.

"Because when I came here I was a bit scared because the players were new to me.

"But when we got together on the field we started to gel well. And then I think I had a really good game. But I know that I can do much better."

* Marc Strydom is in Polokwane as a guest of Cosafa

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