Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor—
FOR a man who was almost lost to football when he plunged into the world of selling clothes at a shop in Harare, Khama Billiat’s rapid transformation into one of the best Zimbabwean footballers of his generation has been one of the game’s beautiful success stories. And, tonight in Johannesburg’s trendy district of Sandton, the diminutive magician — whose brilliance has illuminated the South African Premiership this season — is set to celebrate his finest hour when he is crowned that country’s 2016 Footballer of the Season.
Billiat is expected to sweep all the big awards, including the Players’ Player of the Season, at the annual South African football awards gala as the Rainbow Nation takes a bow and celebrates the talents of one of the best foreigners to grace their fields.
It’s hard, if not impossible, to see the Zimbabwean being denied his crowning glory tonight, even in a country that has been known to be biased by the love of their own footballers in the voting process for such awards, with Billiat set to smash those nationalistic boundaries.
After all, he did it when he won the 2016 Kick-Off Footballer of the Season award after polling 4 766 votes, capturing 56.8 percent of the vote, while his closest rival, teammate Hlompo Kekana, took just 1 153 votes, which represented 13.7 percent of the vote.
Keagan Dolly, one of the stars of the Mamelodi Sundowns’ record-breaking championship-winning campaign, took just 734 votes with Begium-based Andile Jali (583 votes) and Diane Klate of Bidvest Wits getting 406 votes, completed the top five.
For the votes that were cast through Facebook, in the 2016 Kick-Off Footballer of the Season, Billiat won 222 votes, representing 66 percent of the votes, while his closest rival Kekana only got 45 votes, representing just 13 percent of the votes, in the poll.
Khama, who is expected to play a big role in the Warriors’ 2017 Nations Cup qualifier against Malawi at the National Sports Stadium on Sunday, spoke to Kick-Off after winning the magazine’s Footballer of the Season award for 2016, and revealed that he was grateful to God.
“Firstly, I want to thank God who made this possible,” Billiat said. “As always, when you win something for the first time it’s a great honour and you can’t help but look forward to winning more.
“I’m grateful for the award and I give credit to my team who worked hard but, unfortunately, it has to be one person selected for the award and I’m fortunate to be chosen this time around.
“I have to thank the coach (Pitso Mosimane) for giving me the opportunity and believing in me until I could eventually contribute the way I did. It’s part of my job to create scoring opportunities and I love scoring goals as well.
“Hopefully, I will take this season in a positive way and, looking at it as a professional player, I’d like to grow from this season and be even better next season.
“My teammates have largely been influential in my performances this season but the one thing I do now, which I’ve never done previously, is run a lot. Before we go to camp, two days before a match, I always go for a run. Sometimes I run for up to an hour and that makes me feel good.
“I do a bit of gym as well but I love running. It give me a boost and I don’t get tired of running. I can even tell you, by looking at my performances, when I didn’t run before a game. In those games I didn’t do well.”
Billiat said the just-ended South African Premiership season was his best since he arrived in that country after joining Ajax Cape Town from CAPS United.
“Yes, I’d consider this my best,” he told Kick-Off. “I’ve never won two trophies in one season and I’m happy that it’s finally happened. I’ll always look back and say ‘I won the League, the Telkom Knock-out, and the Kick-Off trophy as well’.
“So, definitely, I would say this is one of the best so far in my career. It’s going to be a bit challenging after doing so well this season. It will always be a bit difficult to push to another level but I am the kind of player who will fight to do better.
“I’ll take next season twice as seriously and work twice as hard and then see what it brings at the end of the season.”
Billiat also revealed that he was ready for a dance with European football.
“I remember last year I said I was not ready but I feel like this season I’ve improved in many areas although there are still more improvements to be made,” he told Kick-Off.
“I think I’m ready for Europe, I’m ready to compete in a tougher environment to see if I can actually stay there. It’s not only about going there, you need to stay there.”
The Zimbabwe international also spoke about joining the Aces Youth Academy when he was only 11, the financial challenges that the academy forced to a point when they could not even travel to fulfil their matches here and, after not playing for a year, decided to look for a job and found one in a shop where he was selling clothes in Harare with his best friend Brian Chani.
“I wasn’t playing for about a year. I found a job at a shop selling clothes with my best friend Brian Chani,” said Billiat.
“There was this local amateur coach that saw me working at the shop in town, Conrad Nyambabvu. He kept telling me I was wasting my time, asking me why I’m working and not playing soccer.
“But I was adamant on not playing locally, I wanted to play in another country, I was making a little money at least and I had forgotten about football for a while but whenever I saw people playing football I always felt ‘this is where I want to be.’
“Then Conrad told me he was talking to the coaches of CAPS United and Monomotapa which is where I was actually meant to go and play. Then Lincoln Zvasiya and I were meant to meet with the Monomotapa team at this location but we were late and their team bus left us behind.
“The CAPS bus came and, because many of their players, including Nyasha Mushekwi, Method Mwanjali, Tafadzwa Rusike, Oscar Machapa and Gilbert Mapemba knew us from the Under-17 national team and the Aces Academy, they shouted at us to get on the bus and go and play with them.
“I spoke to their coach who told me to come back the next day to continue training while Lincoln preferred to go to Monomotapa. I played there (at CAPS United) for about four months before Ajax Cape Town offered me a trial.
“When I came to South Africa at the end of May I was meant to train with the Under-19 team that would go on tour to the Netherlands but I was a few days early and I ended up training with the first team who were waiting to close after the season had ended.
“Coach Foppe de Haan saw me and he liked me and said I must go home to Zimbabwe and come back when the season starts. Initially, I was shocked and I was even disappointed because I was meant to go to Europe with the Under-19 boys.
“But I went home, then they booked me a flight to come back and the coach wanted to sign me. That season I played as a striker after terror Fanteni got injured and I ended up scoring nine goals and we almost won the League (Ajax finished second behind Orlando Pirates who won the title on the final day). So, yeah, this has been my journey.”