New captain to lead by example

KwaZulu-Natal Academy captain Sphephelo Sithole is set to continue his footballing journey when he leads the side at the 2017 Durban Under-19 International Football Tournament from 27 July to 5 August.

Sithole’s rise through the country’s junior national teams, complemented by his undisputed future star quality will make him one of the players to watch at the prestigious international competition. The KZN Academy will take on local provincial rivals Maritzburg United, Portuguese giants Benfica and Brazilian outfit Flamengo in the first round.

This year the 18-year-old Sithole will be featuring in his fourth Durban Under-19 International Football Tournament, and has witnessed many players come through the competition and go on to reach greater heights in their careers.

“I look up to guys like Thabo Cele and Sandile Mthethwa, who were with me here at the KZN Academy and a few months ago took part in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup. That is inspiring to me,” Sithole says.

“Their success is testimony to what is possible if we continue to work hard and believe in our abilities. I would like to follow their footsteps and having them as exemplars shows that the dreams we all have to represent the national team and play overseas can come true.”

Given the high-profile nature of the competition and the teams competing, there will be many inquisitive spectators as talent scouts will be on the hunt for the next big football star. This has motivated players who will use this opportunity to showcase their individual skills, but skipper Sithole says for him it is of greater importance to achieve the team’s goals.

“Our target is to reach the semi-finals but looking at the group we are in I think that will be tougher than before. We have some very good players, at the same time though we know we are up against maybe two of the best club youth teams in the world. However, it is also a great challenge for us and we will never stop believing in our ability to play well and win games. We know what we are capable of as a team.”

He went on to state how he has learned a great deal in his previous three Durban Under-19 International Football Tournaments and given his age, this is his last one and the player is determined to make the best out of the opportunity.

“I want to play overseas, that is my aspiration and the Durban Under-19 International Football Tournament allows me to test myself against the best. Going against teams from all over the world has been great for my development as a player because, there is so much to learn from the different styles of play adopted by the various teams.”

Sithole like many other players will be hoping to catch the eyes of the national selectors, specifically at Under-19 level, having previously been a part of the squad that participated in the 2015 FIFA Under-17 World Cup in Chile.

The young man also became the first KZN Academy product to be called up for a FIFA World Cup event at any age-group level, stating: “It was an amazing experience and it gave me the belief in myself and the hunger to achieve more. Just a year before I was playing back home in Ulundi, so to make the step up to a World Cup so quickly was mind-blowing. I got to play against Brazil in Chile and it was a great experience for me.”

Although Sithole might be a little disappointed that English giants Arsenal will not be at the Durban Under-19 International Football Tournament this year – he has scored against them in both the previous two competitions, including a remarkable strike in 2015, “They must be my lucky opposition, I don’t know …” he laughs “I just really enjoyed playing against guys who are likely to go on and become big players in the Premier League and for their national teams, because that is where I ultimately want to be.”