The Bongani Zungu link with young Steven Gerrard as Rangers move captures imagination back in South Africa

When Rulani Mokwena first set eyes on Bongani Zungu seven years ago, he saw a young Steven Gerrard.

Bongani Zungu celebrates South Africa's win against Egypt in the last 16 of the Africa Cup of Nations in 2019. (Photo by Ahmed Hasan/Gallo Images)

The man who helped mould Zungu into one of South African football’s biggest stars now believes Gerrard will have been reminded of himself when he decided to bring the midfielder to Rangers.

“There is something we can call cognitive bias as coaches in that we are attracted to people who reflect or are similar to ourselves,” says Mokwena, who worked with Zungu at Mamelodi Sundowns from 2013 to 2016 and helped him earn his initial move to Europe with Vitoria Guimaraes.

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“I think that is something Steven Gerrard maybe felt when he watched Bongani Zungu. He has very similar characteristics from a playing perspective. He has the intensity Steven Gerrard had as a player, he has the height and drive.

“He has the ability to find different ranges of passes – short or long, diagonal, forward or just keeping possession.

“The way Steven Gerrard played a little bit deeper towards the end of his Liverpool career, that’s the profile Bongani now has.

“But he can also supply assists and goals from taking up more advanced positions or making late runs to support the attack.

“It is immense for him to be signed by Steven Gerrard because he has always admired him. To be coached by someone you modelled your game on, someone who has been your inspiration and role model as a footballer, is massive. The big pulling point for him to join Rangers was because Steven Gerrard is there.”

How Zungu matured and developed

Mokwena, now joint head coach at Sundowns, was in charge of the academy at South Africa’s most successful club when Zungu joined them as a still developing 20-year-old from University of Pretoria.

“We had a new first team coach at the time, Pitso Mosimane, who worked extensively on Bongani,” Mokwena told The Scotsman. “He had also worked under a very good coach in Steve Barker at University of Pretoria.

“Both Steve and Pitso did fantastic work on Bongani. When he came into the Sundowns first team with us, we started working very hard on his technical skills, on receiving the ball in the back foot and playing out of tight areas. We worked on his range of passing.

“When he moved to Vitoria Guimaraes, their scouts said they hadn’t seen a South African midfielder before who could master those technical basics – first touches under pressure and first touches to change the point of attack, the ability to play with the right and left foot.

“Those were things we focused a lot upon in individual sessions with Bongani at Sundowns.

“So to see him move to Guimaraes, then Amiens and now Rangers is extremely encouraging. It is an upward trajectory for him and it’s progress which is well deserved. It reflects that if you work hard and make sacrifices, the game has great rewards for you.

“I believe it will motivate other South African players who admire Bongani. This is a very good step not just for Bongani, but also for South African football.”

A big deal back home

Mokwena says Bongani’s move to Rangers has captured the imagination of the South African football public.

“We are excited that he is joining one of the big teams in Europe,” he added. “He is looking forward to it and there is a real wave of enthusiasm about it here in South Africa, because he is loved here.

“He has a huge following and South African people are very excited to see him join Rangers. He is a special kid, he’s our ambassador. Hopefully he adds value to the league in Scotland and improves Rangers as a team.”

Making the right move

While the presence of Gerrard was a key factor in persuading Zungu to reject other options he had this summer, the 27-year-old took his time before deciding the move to Scotland was the right decision at this stage of his career.

“Bongani has done a lot of research on Rangers - their game model, style of play, the individual characteristics of players he is going to be competing with and playing alongside in midfield,” says Mokwena who remains a close friend and advisor.

“He has watched a lot of Rangers games and clips to get more information about the profile of the team. He was really impressed and he’s looking forward to competing for a starting place.”

The Bongani lowdown

Mokwena has no doubts Zungu will flourish in his new environment and believes the approach he brings to trying to make an impact for Gerrard’s side will quickly endear him to both his team-mates at Ibrox and the Rangers supporters.

“What can they expect from Bongani?,” he says. “They can expect an absolute professional. He is very, very dedicated. He is very committed. He is one of the most professional football players we have ever produced here in South Africa.

“They can also expect a hard working team player. He will give his all for the team, he makes a lot of sacrifices and he wants to win.

“In relation to some of the other offers he had, moving to Rangers was important for him because he gets to compete for titles and winners’ medals.

“He is highly motivated and ambitious. He wants to play in Europe’s highest leagues and in the Champions League or Europa League.

“He is a very driven and passionate footballer. Over and above that, he is a very good human being. He ticks both boxes, professionally and personally.”

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