Bidvest Wits defender Thulani Hlatshwayo feels the hard knocks he endured on duty with Bafana Bafana in Africa have readied him for the rigours of continental football.
The 29-year-old epitomises the qualities needed to be a warrior and it is battle-hardened characters like him that Wits would call on in their mission to make a breakthrough in a CAF club competition.
Given the team’s history of elimination at the first hurdle, not many had predicted that Wits would progress in the CAF Confederation Cup, but the Clever Boys have surged ahead this time.
“Playing in continental competitions not only puts a club on the map, but it builds character, and it will help us to continue to build a stronger team to compete in the PSL,” said Hlatswayo ahead of Wits’ Confed Cup play-off against União Desportiva do Songo of Mozambique in Maputo today.
The winner of this two-legged fixture will progress to the group stage of the second-tier continental club competition.
“We have been in this space [CAF inter-club competition] for the past three years. Here we are again with a shot at qualification for the group stage.
“We have learnt some valuable lessons in terms of how we approach these games. You saw how we came back from 1-0 down in Swaziland [against the Young Buffaloes in the first round] to win the second leg 3-0 at home.”
Although Hlatshwayo was deployed alongside a different set of defenders in Bafana’s recent game against Mali, Wits made gains at Afcon as almost the entire back line of the national team was made up of the Clever Boys’ rearguard – Hlatshwayo, Buhle Mkhwanazi and Sifiso Hlanti.
Ironically, Hlanti made a comeback from a two-month lay-off after suffering a knee injury in Bafana’s Afcon quarterfinal defeat to Nigeria in July.
“It is not just three of us. We have a couple of other players with continental [football] experience in the Wits team,” said Hlatshwayo.
“And we have gathered some useful inside information from Elias Pelembe [originally from Mozambique]. We also have the experience of Siyanda Zwane.”
Zwane (34) joined Wits from Golden Arrows at the start of the current campaign.
Wits have been eliminated from two cups so far this season – the Telkom Knockout and the MTN8 – and Hlatshwayo is hoping Wits will use CAF to cover lost ground.
“It means we’ll have fewer matches and that is not good for a team that wants to challenge for the championship [Absa Premiership title]. We should be playing regularly.
“We have seen how CAF has contributed to Sundowns being one of the best teams around because they play more competitive games, yet they still win the league.
“So, if we progress in CAF, it will afford other players game time because we’ll be juggling domestic and continental assignments.
“We can’t let glory slip away like it happened when we lost the league title after being at the top for the better part of last season,” he said.
Clearly Wits will need characters in the mould of battle-scarred warriors like Hlatshwayo to accomplish their mission on the continent.
Nicknamed Tyson because of his strong physique, there is a softer side to Hlatshwayo.
Just recently, the defender revisited his roots in Soweto, where he donated boots and soccer balls to his former amateur club Senaoane Gunners FC.
. In another CAF Confederation Cup fixture involving a South African side, GladAfrica Championship side TS Galaxy will meet Enyimba in Nigeria this afternoon.