Midfield maestro Doctor Khumalo hung up his boots in 2004 after a glamorous career in which he pulled the strings for South Africa’s most famous football club – and for South Africa in its early post-isolation years, leading up to 1996, when the country fielded one of its best football teams ever.
Theophilus “Doctor” Khumalo started his career at Kaizer Chiefs in 1986, playing for the junior side. His inspiration and mentor was his father, Eliakim “Pro” Khumalo, a renowned player of the 1970s and early 1980s.
Debut at 17
In 1987, at the age of 17, Khumalo was promoted to the senior team, making his debut as a substitute in a Soweto derby match against the club’s arch-rival, Orlando Pirates.
It was therefore fitting that his farewell game, in January 2004, was against Pirates. Speaking to The Sowetan newspaper on the eve of the game, Khumalo said: “There is no other game locally that has the allure and magnetism than that between Chiefs and Pirates. My first game as a professional was against Pirates, and the last one should be against them.”
Chiefs went on to beat Pirates 4-2.
Chiefs man through and through
Khumalo played a key role in Kaizer Chiefs’ local and continental campaigns. His association with Chiefs has been complete: he has not played for any other local team, only leaving the “Glamour Boys” for short playing stints overseas.
He played for Argentinian team Ferrocarril Oeste for six months in 1995, and in 1996 he captained Columbus Crew in the United States.
Khumalo’s fans have fond memories of his ball juggling and distribution skills. He was Chiefs’ midfield kingpin. What he lacked in speed, he made up for with defence-splitting passes that created many goals for his teammates – including the two he set up when Chiefs beat Pirates 2-1 in the 1991 Castle Challenge final.
Khumalo’s best soccer years were the 1990s. Five years after his professional debut, he had achieved a string of honours: he was part of a Kaizer Chiefs team that won three league championship titles and five knockout trophies, and was voted South Africa’s Footballer of the Year in 1992.
After South Africa was readmitted to international soccer in 1992, Khumalo was selected for the country’s first international match, against Cameroon in Durban. South Africa won 1-0, courtesy of a penalty kick by Khumalo.
Khumalo was also the creator of Bafana Bafana’s two goals in the final against Tunisia when South Africa lifted the African Nations Cup at Johannesburg’s FNB Stadium in 1996. Twice Khumalo dispossessed Tunisian players in midfield and laid on passes for the predatory Mark Williams, who scored both goals.
Later that same year, at the same venue, South Africa lost 3-2 to Brazil in a pulsating friendly match. Clive Barker, Bafana Bafana’s coach at the time, has since admitted that replacing Khumalo in the second half was probably his biggest ever mistake.
South Africa, with arguably one of the best sides the country has ever assembled, led 2-0 at halftime against the world champions, with Khumalo the scorer of the second goal. The Brazilians reduced the deficit through Flavio in the 56th minute before Barker replaced Khumalo.
Two minutes later, Rivaldo levelled the score for Brazil; Bebeto struck the winner four minutes from time.
Speaking at a benefit banquet for Khumalo in 2001, Barker said the replacement of Khumalo – even though he seemed to be tiring – had taken the bite out of Bafana, and allowed Brazil the freedom they needed to snatch victory.
Neil Tovey, Bafana Bafana’s captain at the time, was emphatic about Khumalo’s influence on the rest of the team. “He was a genius”, Tovey said at the banquet. “One of the best midfielders of all time.
“When he was in the team and you were in possession, you could not wait to get the ball through to him … We knew that his magical touches would soon get the crowd behind us.”
Khumalo represented South Africa 50 times, scoring nine goals for Bafana Bafana.
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