Rangers new boy Bongani Zungu opens up on the influence of his late father, Steven Gerrard, Benni McCarthy and Thomas Madigage on his journey from South Africa to Glasgow

As the crow flies, it is around 6000 miles from the South African township of Duduza where Bongani Zungu was born and raised to his new footballing home at Ibrox Stadium, which he will experience for the first time on Thursday night.

Bongani Zungu shows his competitive streak on international duty with South Africa as he clashes with Nigeria defender William Ekong during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations quarter final football match in Cairo. (Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images)
Bongani Zungu shows his competitive streak on international duty with South Africa as he clashes with Nigeria defender William Ekong during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations quarter final football match in Cairo. (Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images)

For the 28-year-old, it has been a much longer journey to fulfil his ambition of playing for a major British club, one that has taken him through diversions in Portugal and France.

As Zungu prepares to begin his Rangers career as part of the squad for their Europa League Group D match against Lech Poznan, he can reflect on the influences and inspirations who have shaped him along the way.

From his father, a football obsessive who sadly passed away in 2013, to his new manager Steven Gerrard, whose style of play he has modelled himself upon, Zungu has been shaped both directly and indirectly into the midfielder now hoping to have a key role in Rangers’ quest for success at home and in Europe.

Already a high profile figure in his homeland, Zungu also wants to enhance the reputation of South African football in Europe, following in the footsteps of pioneers such as Thomas Madigage, who had a brief spell at Rangers in 1989, and more recent trailblazers such as Benni McCarthy.

Raised on tales of British football

“My father was a huge football fan and he supported Manchester United when we were young,” said Zungu after finally being formally unveiled as a Rangers player on Wednesday, having had to spend time in quarantine after completing his season-long loan move from Amiens on October 5.

“He really knew about British football and he used to mention Rangers as one of the clubs that were winning trophies.

“Of course, today I am here at Rangers and I am sure he is very proud of me. I will carry on making him proud and making myself proud. Hopefully I will get to win trophies here.”

Impressed by Gerrard’s mean streak

Despite his old man’s love of Manchester United, the young Zungu found himself attracted to the player at the heart of midfield for their great rivals Liverpool. Now, former Anfield and England captain Gerrard is his boss.

“I watched the gaffer a lot,” said Zungu. “If I could describe him, I would say he is a top midfielder and a mean midfielder. Every touch, every tackle, he was very aggressive and he was always up for battles.

“I was inspired growing up, he was a player I wished to be like. I watched him a lot and he really made me want to play football.

“My quality is that I am good on the ball, I can be very aggressive when we don’t have the ball. When I spoke with the manager, he made it clear what he wants me to do and how he wants me to get on when he gives me an opportunity. Those are the two skills that I bring to the game."

Standard bearer for the rainbow nation

South African players have had mixed fortunes through the years when bidding to forge careers in Europe.

Thomas Madigage was among the first to try his luck when, as a precocious teenager, he became the first black South African to play for Rangers. The move failed to work out, however, and Madigage returned home where he became one of South African football’s most popular figures and was assistant manager of the national team when he tragically lost his life in a car accident in 2012, the year before Zungu made his debut for Bafana Bafana.

The most successful South African export so far has been Benni McCarthy, a Champions League winner with Porto in 2004. Zungu is determined to represent his country with pride and distinction during his time at Rangers.

“When I was at school, Thomas Madigage was one of the coaches in South Africa,” he said. “Growing up as a kid and trying to follow famous footballers, I was told he was a player who represented South Africa well and today I have that opportunity to fly the South African flag very high.

“You look at the likes of him and Benni McCarthy who have left South Africa and played at the highest level and I want to do the same if not more. So, yes, he's a very inspirational person to me.”

Ready to hit the ground running

Zungu has been training on his own while in quarantine and joined his new team-mates in a session for the first time this week. He is in Gerrard’s Europa League squad and will be among the substitutes for Thursday’s game against Lech Poznan at Ibrox as Rangers look to build on their 2-0 win over Standard Liege in Belgium in last week’s Group D opener.

Rangers have the option to sign Zungu on a permanent deal next summer and he is keen to get involved on the pitch as soon as possible in order to enhance the prospects of that scenario playing out.

"I am coming to a very confident team, the players look good and I just need to work hard,” he added. “When I get an opportunity, I have to do well. One thing that stands out for me with the Rangers team is that it doesn’t matter who the manager puts in the starting line-up, everybody seems to understand the tactics and know what they are doing. I am coming to a team that has so much quality and confidence so I am looking forward to playing as soon as I can. I feel good and I feel ready.”

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