The tragic tale of Thomas Madigage, Rangers' first black South African player

Anyone making a South African connection with Rangers would quickly find a reference point in the famous 1950s duo of winger Johnny Hubbard and striker Don Kitchenbrand.
South African football was united in grief at the funeral of Thomas Madigage who died at the age of 41 in October 2012 (Photo by Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images/Getty Images)South African football was united in grief at the funeral of Thomas Madigage who died at the age of 41 in October 2012 (Photo by Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
South African football was united in grief at the funeral of Thomas Madigage who died at the age of 41 in October 2012 (Photo by Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Along with Dean Furman, who managed a single substitute outing in 2008, they are the only South African players to have represented the Ibrox club in competitive first team action.

That list will have a new name soon after Rangers completed the loan signing of current South African international midfielder Bongani Zungu from Amiens just two hours before the transfer window closed last Monday night.

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Zungu is the first black player from his country to sign for Rangers - but not the first to wear their light blue jersey.

That distinction belongs to Thomas Madigage, a beloved and ultimately tragic figure in South African football whose time with Rangers is less readily recalled.

How did Madigage’s move transpire?

It was in the summer of 1989, when Rangers’ stunning capture of former Celtic striker Mo Johnston was making headlines around the world, that Madigage arrived in Glasgow to little fanfare.

The then 18-year-old midfielder had come on trial in May after Jimmy Nicholl, then the Rangers reserve team coach, had been alerted to his potential by Jomo Sono, owner of the eponymously named Jomo Cosmos club in Johannesburg.

Sono, a former team-mate of Nicholl’s at Toronto Blizzard, had given Madigage his debut for Cosmos when he was just 16, making him the youngest ever player in South African top flight football at the time.

Madigage joined the Rangers squad for a youth tournament in Italy and made an immediate impact as he received individual recognition from the organisers who voted him the best attacking player on show.

He was invited to return to Rangers for pre-season ahead of the 1989-90 campaign and was joined by another Jomo Cosmos player, Augustine Makalakalene - a more experienced midfielder who was then 25 - for an extended trial period.

While they both initially joined the reserve squad, Madigage immediately caught the eye of Rangers manager Graeme Souness and his assistant Walter Smith and was occasionally invited to train with the first team squad.

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Affectionately, if predictably, he was nicknamed Pele by the other Rangers players who admired the teenager’s outstanding technique and dynamic ability to run at pace with the ball under complete control.

Hit the ground running

Madigage dazzled on a Highland tour with the Rangers reserves, earning rave reviews for his performance in a 4-1 win at Elgin City, and was then included for a friendly against Clydebank’s first team at Kilbowie on 5 August.

He featured in a strong starting line-up which included Scott Nisbet, Derek Ferguson, Sandy Robertson, Ian McCall, Gary McSwegan and winger Davie Cooper who was just days away from leaving Rangers to join Motherwell.

Madigage scored in a 4-2 win for the Ibrox men in front of over 2000 spectators, the Rangers fans in attendance giving a warm ovation to the diminutive and clearly gifted youngster.

Three days later, Madigage was included in the squad for Rangers’ final pre-season friendly against Clyde at Firhill and appeared as a second half substitute for Ray Wilkins in a 5-2 win watched by 3500 fans.

Issues arise ...

Speculation grew that Rangers would offer him a three-year contract but gaining a work permit was difficult at a time when Scottish Football League rules permitted only 10 foreign players from outside the European Union to ply their trade in the Premier Division.

Madigage’s prospective deal with Rangers duly fizzled out. He played two more games for the reserves, scoring in a 4-0 win over St Mirren at Love Street in which future Scotland striker John Spencer scored a hat-trick, before he and Makalakalane both moved on.

Their European adventure took the South African duo to Switzerland where both players were signed by FC Zurich.

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But while Makalakalane went on to enjoy seven successful years in Swiss football, Madigage managed just one league appearance for Zurich before knee injuries saw his contract terminated as he returned home to rejoin Jomo Cosmos.

Making it back home

In 1993, he joined SuperSport United and became a hugely popular player in a 10-year spell with the Pretoria club. While never truly fulfilling his exciting potential, Madigage was renowned as one of the most entertaining players in the South African domestic game and was eventually capped four times for his country.

When he brought his playing career to an end in 2003, he became assistant-manager of SuperSport United, helping them win three South African league titles. He became famed for his happy-go-lucky demeanour on the touchline, always wearing the policeman-style hat of the Zion Christian Church of which he was a devout member.

In July 2012, he was appointed assistant-manager of the national team who were preparing to take part in the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations Finals on home soil.

Heartbreaking tale

But just three months later, tragedy struck. Madigage was driving on a notorious stretch of road to visit his ill mother in his home town of Burgersfort in the Limpopo region of the country when his car struck a stray donkey.

Madigage, just 41, was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident.

His passing prompted a huge outpouring of grief in South Africa and his loss is still keenly felt.

Warmest of tributes

“Thomas was like a brother to me,” reflected Pitso Mosimane, a former team-mate of Madigage’s and who went on to manage new Rangers signing Zungu at Mamelodi Sundowns.

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“I looked after him when he came to Jomo Cosmos but afterwards he looked after me. He brought me to SuperSport United so it’s like the guy launched my career.

“So people like that you don’t forget. That chapter where you are saying ‘don’t forget where you come from’. Life can be difficult and you must have your people. As you do well, you must take them along with you.”

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