Transformer: Khumbulani Konco

Football is a fickle business. Just ask Manchester United’s ill-fated manager Chris Moyes. But in a game where sackings and transfers are as common as vuvuzelas at a Bafana game, Khumbulani Konco has spent more than a decade at one club. The thoughtful, soft-spoken Bloemfontein Celtic veteran first joined Phunya Sele Sele as a player, before moving up the ranks to team manager, COO, and now CEO and club director – a career path he attributes to “loyalty, commitment, and responsibility”.

The former Orlando Pirates defender could add “ambition”, “focus”, and “pragmatism” to that list. A role in administration was the dream – he took early retirement as a player to pursue a career off the pitch. But there was always a plan B: the man who cites Lucas Radebe and his uncle, a doctor, as role models, has an honours degree in haematology. “Education broadens your mind,” he explains. “You think better, you think clearly, so I knew what I wanted.”

You always knew you wanted a career in administration?

It was definitely always my ambition. At a young age, the first team I played for was Ravens and as much as I was a player, I was an administrator even there, organising the boys, organising fixtures, attending meetings, making sure that the grounds were booked for us to play. At that stage I was already doing that.

And as I grew up, playing at school, getting selected for the provincial team, playing for the university team, football and education were always intertwined. They were my two focuses and eventually I had to choose one.

You clearly planned for a life after your playing career, but many footballers don’t.

That’s the sad part. That’s why at Bloemfontien Celtic we’re spreading the message of education first and sport later: finish your Matric so that at least you can broaden your mind a bit. Not everyone will go to universities or technikons, but finish your Matric. And now we’re seeing a new generation of players attending school which is encouraging so we’re definitely hoping it will be easier for them to go to school alongside soccer. We’re the example, we did it, it’s possible. It’s easy to copy us and take it from there.

Do you think your experience as a player has helped in your roles behind the scenes?

Definitely, because I know how players think, I know how players feel. When they come to you with their problems, you can relate because you were there at some stage and at least you can give a bit of advice. You can also advise the club owner and go: ‘Listen, let’s look at it this way’ – and, with Celtic, what makes it so easy and nice is that the club owner was also a football player. So it’s easy for him to relate to the players as well.

It sounds like you love your job.

Definitely. When you listen to motivational speakers they always say that you must do what you love. So I think I’m one of the lucky guys who’s working in an environment I love; I’m passionate about sport and I’ll be doing it for the rest of my life. Sometimes I feel like I’m even not working.

But there are challenges of course. This must have been quite a difficult year for the team, especially with the change of coaches at the beginning of the season.

We can say so. We started very slowly this season and we went through a very difficult dip and the only way we could see ourselves out of the dip was a change of coaches. That’s when we brought in the new coach, Ernst Middendorp, and since then things have been going well. We wanted to do well in the cup competitions, so it’s just unfortunate we were knocked out of the Nedbank Cup at home against Wits University.

So next season, our top priority is to be top 5 in the league, and then our second priority is to do well in one or two of the cup competitions which are the MTN 8, the Telkom Knockout, and the Nedbank Cup. We’d definitely like to win one and do well in the others.

And, still looking ahead, what are your thoughts about South African football as a whole?

We have serious challenges there and we’re hoping our local football association will address the situation as it is. Let’s do more development, let’s play football, and let’s leave politics. But the future looks bright. The next generation, they look like they want to play football and they’re also looking at studying so that broadens their mind a bit, it makes it easier for the coaches to coach. If you’re coaching someone, they need to be educated so that they can grasp and implement what you’re telling him. So that’s one of the challenges again.

What about the challenge of fickle supporters who only love a team as long as they’re winning?

We call that, in football language, a typical South African football fan. That’s why Bloemfontein Celtic have been unique as a side: our supporters are behind the team through thick and thin and it makes for a very good atmosphere when your supporters back you even when the chips are down.  That’s the kind of supporter that you want behind you. If you look at the model of the English Premier League, communities are behind their teams through good times and bad times. And that’s what we want. Unfortunately in South Africa we only love our teams when they’re winning and unfortunately in a football game there will always be just one winner.

So how can you cultivate a culture like that?

Clubs can get more involved with the community. Some clubs try but they don’t go all the way. And you aren’t going to see results straight away – it’s something that takes time, it’s something that you need to continue doing so the community can see that you’re really consistent. At Celtics we’re rooted in the community, we try to do CSI projects in the community as often as we can so that the community can see us and, in return, the community can support us. So that’s a start.

With that in mind, where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

Running the league? I’d like to see myself involved in the football league in South Africa, not only Bloemfontein Celtics but taking care of the whole country.

  • This article originally appeared in Man, the men’s lifestyle magazine of the Foschini group.

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