Known for his blistering pace and trickery, Helman Mkhalele terrorised many a full back in his hey day earning him the nickname “Midnight Express” from the hordes of Orlando Pirates supporters. Tumelo Sefatsa caught up with him to interview him about the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations semi-final hammering of Ghana, that took place on this day 20 years ago.
Tumelo Sefatsa: Do you still remember your first Bafana Bafana match?
Helman Mkhelele: Yes, it was in 1994 against Ghana at Loftus. It was the Nelson Mandela Challenge for Nations Cup.
TS: How was it playing for the national team for the first time?
HM: It was scary. It was scary because when I first joined the national team I was the youngest in the team and there were big stars, guys like the late John “Shoes” Moshoeu, Lucas Radebe, Neil Tovey, Steve Komphela and the late Sizwe Motaung. I didn’t know what to expect when I got there. I was nervous but the guys made it easier for me to adapt because they were just supporting me.
TS: Moving to the AFCON semi-final, it was played on the 31st of January 1996 and Bafan Bafana won 3-0 with John Moshoeu being the key player. What was the pressure like going into that match? You’d been playing very good football but a semi-final is a different story altogether.
HM: Well the pressure was high, because if I am not mistaken we beat Algeria (Excellent memory -Ed) to reach the semi-final, so the pressure was high as the team had already gained momentum because we beat Cameroon in the group stages convincingly, and the whole nation started to believe in the team.
TS: Now, the build up. I am sure everyone at home was sending you good luck messages and all but what did the coach say to you that made you guys believe that you can beat Ghana?
HM: You see, the coach was very good in terms of working with the mindset of the players. He just told us to go out there and make sure that we play our normal football, and he became like a fan. When we were on the pitch he would scream and shout like a fan and not as a coach in terms of encouraging us. Like in my case, he knew that I could dribble. I had pace and speed so he would tell me to out there, dribble and pass. He would tell me to use my speed and pace which is unlikely to be seen in today’s football. So he was a very good motivator and he also mentioned that the nation was behind us as well as starting to remind us about the unification of the nation and the Mandela factor as well.
TM: And come the 90 minute-mark, every South Africa was celebrating. How did you feel knowing that you are going to the final?
HM: It was really exciting because we never thought that we would get there when we first started our first game. Our objective was to at least finish in the top four but once we qualified for the final the mood was high and the reality of winning the cup grew so we started to believe that we could do it.
TS: I am aware that you quit football in 2008. What exactly led you to calling it a day?
HM: I just realised thatIi wanted to grow as a person and be part of the management structure and the only way was for me to leave football.
TS: “Midnight Express” – what a wonderful name, how did you get it?
HM: I got it because of my complexion as well as … well it was a combination of two (things) … my complexion and the speed that I used to have so I was compared to the fastest train and back then it was Express.
TS: Okay nice, what do you think about Thabo Rakhale, the Orlando Pirates midfielder? He has been playing very good football. What are your views about him?
HM: Well, he is a good player, he has huge potential and he has made his mark in football. The only thing he needs is to make sure he sustains what he has just established by making sure that he lives up to the expectations that he created by living a healthy lifestyle and working very hard.
TS: You mentioned that you left football because you want to be part of the management structure, are you currently part of the management structure?
HM: Not necessarily at club level. I am involved in coaching education at SAFA. We train coaches who want to be accredited in football coaching.
TS: Well, that’s it. Thank you very much for your time, enjoy the rest of your day and may God bless you moving forward.
HM: Thanks my brother, same to you.
Photo credit: Nick Lourens