Orlando Pirates’ legendary captain, Lucky Lekgwathi, has officially hung up his boots after 14 years of loyal service at Dr Irvin Khoza’s club.
Affectionately known as Phinda Mzala, the 40-year-old Ga-Rankuwa-born defender joined Bucs from Ria Stars in 2002 after a two-season stint at Real Rovers. After making his move to Pirates, Lekgwathi never looked back and went on to become one of the most successful captains in the club’s history, collecting trophies and demonstrating leadership qualities second to none.
Despite his professional conduct, dedication and commitment to his craft, Lekgwathi only managed a mere 14 Bafana Bafana caps and it is absurd to think the country didn’t utilise his rare qualities as much as it could have. Another missed opportunity right there! Ask any of Lekgwathi’s former teammates about the influence, guidance and assistance offered by the humble captain over the years and you will be surprised how even some of the most decorated footballers of our time feel indebted to the stalwart defender. Even opposition players and coaches had nothing but respect for this giant. It is also not every day that a team captain commands respect even from opposition supporters, even more so from arch-rival supporters. Lucky is one of the few that I know to have accomplished this feat.
Lekgwathi’s retirement came as no surprise, especially for someone his age, however, the fact that it took two seasons’ non-appearance to finally confirm his retirement smacks of total disrespect for both the legendary figure and the club’s supporters. His last official appearance for Bucs, was away to Golden Arrows on May 10, 2014, in a 3–1 league win for Bucs with Kermit Erasmus, Sifiso Myeni and Mpho Makola finding the back of the net. A long-term injury then struck Phinda Mzala, resulting in him not starting the 2014/15 season with the club. However, upon his recovery, he continued training with the team and whenever I enquired about his future, all he could tell me was that he was still around. Speculation was rife, with reports of a possible position in the club’s technical team or management being made available for the legendary Lekgwathi. None of that materialised until the news broke that all that talk was just pure speculation and therefore there was absolutely nothing at the club, beyond his football career, in the pipeline.
To think the technical team couldn’t even provide Lekgwathi with an opportunity to bid the Buccaneers farewell at Orlando Stadium, even if it was a cameo role, towards the end of last season, is really saddening. It is not like Pirates were challenging for league honours or couldn’t afford to keep a place on the bench for Phinda Mzala. Lekgwathi is not just any player – he is everything Pirates stands for and therefore his retirement should never be dealt with in the same vein as other former players. He wasn’t just another player lucky enough to don the black and white jersey. He is to Pirates what Ryan Giggs is to Manchester United – a living legend! We are talking here about someone who played an incredible role in ending the club’s eight-year league title drought and went on to lead the team to the only Double-Treble ever achieved in the PSL era.
There are only three times that I remember the usually calm but sometimes temperamental Lekgwathi being caught ‘off-side’ in his career. Firstly, his one and only red card in his career for a second bookable challenge on Kurt Lentjies when Bucs defeated Mamelodi Sundowns 2–1, then the notorious ‘nail-cutter incident’ at Bucs training and finally the public utterances following his disappointment at missing out on the MTN8 final against Platinum Stars. Phinda Mzala missed his aunt’s funeral to be part of the team in Durban for the final, only to find out a few hours before the game that he was to take no part in the game, with a seat in the VIP section reserved for him instead. This after he was ‘rested’ for the second leg of the semi-final against Kaizer Chiefs played earlier in the week so that he could be ‘fresh for the final’. How many players would willingly sacrifice a family funeral for the team’s commitments?
The club’s supporters continue to hold Lekgwathi in high regard and have named a couple of Supporters Club branches after this magnificent legend. I also remember him turning down an offer to fly down to Durban for the launch of a Bucs branch named after him, opting to travel with the supporters instead. Can you imagine the experience for the supporters and the humility shown by this legend? How many professional players would even think of supporting street vendors instead of classy shops in the Waterfront or Sandton? Ask the Bucs-supporting vendors – especially those around the Johannesburg CBD – and they will tell you about Phinda Mzala. The down-to-earth man values, appreciates and supports them whenever he gets a chance. I don’t know of a player more humble and appreciative of the team’s supporters.
My point is that we need to honour our legends while they are still alive. I hope Pirates management have Lekgwathi’s testimonial game in their planning. While I’m at it, where is Surprise Moriri, another legendary figure who shouldn’t just disappear off the radar? What happened to Thabo Mooki’s benefit game? We have to honour these and other legends for their loyal, professional and exemplary service to the Beautiful Game. It has to be done while they are still alive, rather than posthumously. Anything else is a disgrace…