The Sunday Mail
AS if it was designed by the football gods, Khama Billiat made his debut in the South African Premiership just a day after celebrating his 20th birthday.
That was in August 2010, when South African football was abuzz, just a month after the country had become the first and only African nation to host the FIFA World Cup finals.
Billiat had just graduated from being a teenager on August 20, 2010 when he featured for his new side Ajax Cape Town in a MTN8 quarter-final clash against Mamelodi Sundowns — a team he would join later and flourish with in his career.
Billiat turns 30 on August 19 and what a decade it has been for the Warriors talisman, who has often divided opinion within both the local and South African football fraternity.
The Kaizer Chiefs forward, who is the highest-earning player in the ABSA Premiership, has come under scrutiny in recent weeks following a rather disappointing season for Amakhosi.
Billiat, whose second season at Kaizer Chiefs has been hampered by intermittent injury spells, had scored one goal in 13 league appearances for the Soweto giants, who led the ABSA Premiership log table when the season was halted in March due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The Billiat saga has attracted widespread attention both locally and in South Africa, and the Warriors star has not yet responded publicly to the criticism.
His manager Mike Ngobeni of Msport, however, insists that the forward is focused on delivering for Chiefs on the pitch as much as he has done with Ajax and Sundowns in his decade in South Africa.
“Khama has been a great ambassador of Zimbabwe through the awards he has been getting and his fans, the Zimbabwe nation, salute him.
“Since his arrival in SA, he has had several appearances with the Zimbabwean national team. Starting with the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, various friendly matches, one in which he scored his first goal for Zimbabwe against Zambia. He also played for the national team at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations,” Ngobeni said.
“As Msport Management, we know that Khama is happy at Kaizer Chiefs and the club is also impressed with him as they are both contributing to his and the club’s success and goals.
“As long as Khama is happy, he gives the game his all.’’
In the decade under review, Billiat has scored a combined 66 league goals in 221 Premiership appearances.
But there is no doubting that his finest hour came in 2016 when he inspired Mamelodi Sundowns to Champions League glory before being nominated for that season’s CAF Player of the Year award.
Billiat also won three major gongs at the ABSA Premiership awards in 2016, bagging the Players’ Player, Midfielder of the Season, and Footballer of the Season awards.
The Mufakose-bred star has also attracted media attention with his off-the-field shenanigans in “Mzansi” and a penchant for life in the fast lane.
George Comitis, co-owner of Ajax Cape Town, who signed Billiat from CAPS United, reckons that there has been undue pressure on the player.
Comitis, however, maintains that there were no doubts about Billiat’s qualities as a player.
“He has not had a good season at Chiefs. There has been a lot of pressure on the kid,” Comitis told The Sunday Mail Sport.
George and his brother John were the major shareholders of Ajax Cape Town when the late Edzai Kasinauyo facilitated Billiat’s move to the Urban Warriors.
And Comitis feels the death of Kasinauyo in 2017 was a huge blow for Billiat.
“You see, Edzai was like a father to Khama, he kept him in check. He kept him focused on the job and I think Khama needs some persuasion now.
“He needs somebody to look after him so that he stays in the right path.
“We had a very good relationship with Edzai; very sad he is late. He brought us Khama Billiat and Tafadzwa Rusike for trials and we also made an association with the academy they were coming from.
“They both impressed our new coach back then, who was Foppe De Haan,” recalled Comitis.
“We also had a perfect relationship with Ajax Amsterdam, who came to scout for players from our team. We had a very good nursery for players at Ajax Cape Town and Khama was one of the most exciting prospects.
“That relationship we had with Ajax Amsterdam allowed Thulani Serero to have a trial with the Dutch giants after we had done well in the 2010/2011 season, in which we finished second behind Orlando Pirates.
“Thulani had a phenomenal season. He was voted Player of the Year and was subsequently invited for trials at Ajax Amsterdam. That’s how he got there.
“Unfortunately for Billiat, at that time Serero was the star, and he went to Amsterdam ahead of Khama. But we were pretty sure he was one for the future.
“So, when Thulani left, Khama stepped up to the podium. But, we eventually sold our shares in the team to other guys in 2012 and unfortunately, they didn’t have that good link with Ajax Amsterdam and they ended up selling Khama to Mamelodi Sundowns,” Comitis said.
“I personally think Khama could have played overseas; he is a quality player. He was phenomenal.
“He was a fantastic kid, very good in the change room and someone who loved to get all the attention which was a sign of a good striker.”
Manchester United link
Comitis also spoke about Billiat’s Manchester United link after the Zimbabwean had impressed in a friendly match between Ajax Cape Town and the Red Devils in July 2012.
“I remember having a very good conversation about Billiat with Bryan Robson, who was then a scout at Manchester United when they came down here for a friendly match with our team.
“They were impressed by Billiat and only wanted to see if his goal scoring ability would improve. They were concerned with how good he was when it came to putting the ball into the net regularly.
“At that time, he (Billiat) wasn’t scoring as much as he went on to do later in his career. He was still young and sometimes lacked that consistency, which these Manchester United guys were searching for.
“He was eventually sold to Sundowns, which I think was a very good move.
“I have never been worried about Khama’s frame because of what he can do with the ball. He is very quick, intelligent and superb.
“Besides, there are a lot of smaller players overseas. Even Messi, he isn’t that big!”
Muhsin Ertugral, who coached Billiat at Ajax in 2013, feels sorry for Khama, but thinks the Zimbabwean international should have moved to Europe after the success at Sundowns.
“Yes, critics will always be there and I don’t know if this has done any justice to him,” Ertugral told The Sunday Mail Sport from his base in Turkey.
“From what I see, Khama is a player that obviously needs attention and in the field he also needs to be given a free role when going forward.
“Injuries have played their part on his game. His rhythm and momentum have been disturbed a bit. I think after this period, and if he stays healthy, he will be a major force that can help the team win the league,” Ertugral, who now works within the Turkey national team setup, said.
“It was at Ajax where I first came into contact with Billiat. He was very young at that time and we worked on his tactical knowledge of the game.
“He had pace and skill but needed to be fine-tuned. Luckily, he was very willing to work hard.
“The boy had a unique skill to unlock defence lines. He is very versatile, and I still believe he is a great number 10, a type of player who plays between the lines.
“He developed into a strong player at Sundowns, a player who is dedicated and loves to win. The success they had at Sundowns formed his character and hunger.
“I still believe that was the time Khama should have moved to European leagues to further his career,” said Ertugral.
Former Dynamos left-back Stanley “Samora” Chirambadare worked with Billiat when he was still an eight-year old boy in Mufakose, and the junior football guru remembers a “humble and respectful” young Khama.
“Khama was full of respect but with a big heart in the game. He never showed fear though he played against older opponents,” Chirambadare said.
“I started football development in Mufakose around 1998 and my training venue was Number 1 Ground, just across Mufakose High 1 School.
“I would invite boys to come and those who came I would also ask them to bring their friends. Then one day there was this group of little boys. When I asked them their names, one of them said his surname was Billiat.
“Then I asked him about Cheche (Billiat), and he said he was his uncle. I knew Cheche and we were friends. He had so much respect even though we played for rival clubs CAPS United and Dynamos.
“I told him (Khama) frankly that he would make it in football because football runs in the blood. He was a tiny little boy back then, he was about eight-years-old, but he would make the starting line-up of my Under-15 team.
“Back then, our local council would give us a bus. There was a team in Glen View which was under Zivanai “Zifa” Chiyangwa and one from Sunningdale under Sammy Mavhenyengwa and we would clash in curtain-raiser matches at Rufaro.
“Khama was a marvel to watch, even at Gwinyiro Primary School. Other boys told the coaches there to play him because they had seen him at our team.
“Then at some point, I stopped the project because of other things that had come up. And Khama was the only one who came to me and said ‘coach, what do I now that you are no longer coaching us?’
“I told him to go to Aces Youth Soccer Academy; that project was just starting. The rest is what you have heard or read repeatedly,” said Chirambadare.
Just before his South African breakthrough, Billiat had been loaned to CAPS United from Aces Academy in 2010 and spent a few months at Makepekepe from where he was snatched by Ajax Cape Town.
Veteran CAPS United defender, Method Mwanjale, was there when a teenage Khama arrived at Makepekepe.
“His first touch was magical. It was evident he had the potential to do well,” Mwanjale said.