From brilliance to burnout; the fall from grace story of Khama Billiat

Not so long ago, Khama Billiat was one of, if not the most sought-after player in the South African Premiership.

The nimble-footed Zimbabwean winger mesmerised football fans, especially those who love Mamelodi Sundowns, in a short but glittering spell spanning five years.

Billiat left a trail of good memories at Masandawana, where he scored 43 goals and provided 47 assists in the iconic yellow and blue strip.

The pint-sized Mufakose-bred forward won the CAF Champions League with Sundowns in 2016 and emerged the biggest winner at the South African Premier Soccer League awards the same year, scooping the Players’ Player of the Year, Midfielder of the Year and Footballer of the Year.

When it emerged that the Aces Youth Academy graduate was contemplating leaving Masandawana, many big African clubs, including Egyptian giants Zamalek, wanted to sign the diminutive winger.

But Billiat opted to remain in South Africa and settled for Soweto giants Kaizer Chiefs in June 2018 —a move described by South African media as one of the biggest transfer coups ever.

A year later, at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) finals in Egypt, Billiat got a thunderous applause, one which was nearly the same as that of Liverpool star Mohamed Salah, when the former Ajax Cape Town star’s name appeared on the Cairo International Stadium big screen, before the Warriors-Pharoahs Group A opener.

That is just how popular and respected Billiat was, before his career took a huge nosedive.

But what triggered his fall from grace?

Bad relationship with Zimbabwean media

At Afcon 2019, Billiat surprised Zimbabwean journalists who were covering the continental showpiece that he was not going to answer any questions from them.

He (Billiat) openly told his fellow countymen that he would only take and answer questions from media practitioners from other countries, especially South Africa.

The impression that fiasco gave was that Billiat felt at home in South Africa, more than in Zimbabwe.

The reputation of not responding to questions from Zimbabwean journalists continued even after Afcon 2019, and many local media practitioners simply told themselves Billiat would be covered by their South African counterparts —some of whom would turn against the player years later.


Harsh criticism at Kaizer Chiefs 

Since Billiat swapped the yellow shirt of Sundowns for the gold and black of Chiefs, the ‘Khosi nation’, at every given opportunity, castigated the Zimbabwean winger for “failing to replicate the form which hurled him to stardom at Masandawana ”.

Billiat was the fall guy for the entire five years he was at Amakhosi, with fans, former players and ‘legends’ of the club insisting the pint-sized winger ought to have performed to the level of his salary — a reported R850 000 a month.

He was on the receiving end of spiteful criticism, which even had xenophobic connotations at times, from fans, pundits and even a section of the South African press.

That criticism, according former Warriors team manager Wellington Mpandare,  was just harsh and a player cannot excel in such an environment.

“A player performs well as long as he has good players around him,” reckons Mpandare.

“For Kaizer Chiefs, they were struggling and I think that contributed to the way Khama played because even with the Zimbabwe national team, everyone agrees that he was a darling and rescued the Warriors on several occasions, because he had good players around him.

“He is one player who I can’t say is weak but I know he gets affected by the negative publicity, it really affects him.

“This is why at one time when Zdravko Logarusic (former Zimbabwe national team coach) was constantly shouting at him during the Afcon qualifier against Algeria in Algiers, he didn’t perform well. He was affected and that also contributed to his eventual decision to quit international football,” added Mpandare.

Billiat was at Chiefs in arguably the South African football’s glamour club’s worst era in it’s illustrious history, which saw four different coaches —Ernst Middendorp, Gavin Hunt, Authur Zwane, and Stuart Baxter failing to restore glory days.

Of those four coaches, for some reason, none could get the best out of Billiat.

When Amakhosi came the closest to breaking their Premiership title drought, which stretches back to 2015, the Soweto giants squandered a 13 point lead at the top of the table in the 2020/21 campaign and lost the title to Sundowns on the final day of the season.

Billiat even fired Chiefs ahead against Baroka in the decider, before the Limpopo-based side restored parity late on, but most criticism for Amakhosi’s failure to lift the trophy was centred around the Zimbabwean star.


Nagging injuries 

During the five years he was at Kaizer Chiefs, Billiat spent most time in the treatment room than on the field of play.

The diminutive winger struggled with nagging injuries which clearly affected the way he played for Chiefs and even the Zimbabwe national team.

A knee injury kept him out for 22 days in the the 2019/20 season, resulting in him missing two league games.

During the same season, Billiat also missed five Chiefs games due to a hamstring injury which kept him out for 46 days.

He also had an achilles tendon problem towards the end of the 2019/20 season.

Billiat then broke his leg in the 2020/21 season and was sidelined for 81 days, missing 19 games for club and country.

In the same season, he also missed 12 games for Chiefs, due to an unknown injury.

The Zimbabwean star then suffered another knee injury in the 2022/23 season, which kept him out of action for 41 days, missing six games in the process.

Another injury in the same season, this time a groin problem, kept him out for 145 days, resulting in him missing 15 Chiefs games.

It was that groin problem which many believe culminated in the club forcing him to take a pay cut if they were to extend his stay at Naturena.


Separation with Mike Ngobeni 

Many people belive the turning point in Billiat’s career,  was his separation with his then agent Mike Ngobeni.

The two ended their working relationship under unclear circumstances in August 2020, but Ngobeni insisted there was no bad blood between them.

“He had a two-year contract with us, and that contract expired. He then decided against renewing it and he was well within his rights,” Ngobeni told South African media.

“Khama is my boy. He’s like my younger brother. There is no bad blood between him and I. We are still in constant communication.

“Remember, I knew Khama way before I represented him, and some people are trying to make this look bad. I accepted his decision and we have moved on from it,” added Ngobeni.

Billiat then replaced Ngobeni with Godfrey Bakasa, better known in Zimbabwe, particularly in the entertainment circles, where he has thrived more, as Vokal.

The fact that Billiat has been struggling to find a club for nearly seven months, yet his former Aces Youth Academy and Warriors teammate Knowledge Musona, who is of the same age and somewhat possesses the same quality, always finds finds a club, clearly indicates lack of a proper agent for Billiat.


Burning the Chiefs bridge

While Billiat might have been justified to be upset over the harsh criticism he got during the nightmarish five years he was at Kaizer Chiefs, the manner in which he left the club also leaves a lot to be desired.

Amakhosi released a statement on July 8 last year, claiming that Billiat, whose contract had ended a month ealier, was not responding to communication by the club to renew it.

“Following the expiry of attacking midfielder Khama Billiat’s Kaizer Chiefs contract on 30 June 2023, the Club tabled a new offer for the Zimbabwean marksman to remain with Amakhosi,” read the statement.

“Billiat was last season at Kaizer Chiefs Village on June 2029 and has not answered any of the calls or messages sent to him by the club.”

Critics argued that as much as Billiat was within his rights to end his stay at Chiefs, the manner in which he did so, not only exposed his agent’s incompetence, but also ushered in a gloom future in South African football for the player.

“Billiat shouldn’t have burnt that Kaizer Chiefs bridge. You cannot do that to a club you called home for nearly six years. He had the right to leave, but not in the manner he did. Besides, the Motaung family is very powerful in South African football, they can easily influence fellow Premiership clubs not to sign him,” a former Warriors teammate of Billiat’s, who chose not to be named, told Soccer24.

Billiat is struggling to find a club and not even trying his luck at SuperSport United, convinced the Pretoria-based club to offer him a contract.

Granted, at 33 years of age, he is not the same Billiat he was five years ago, but failing to find a club in South Africa, is massive downgrade for a player many people believed was good enough to go straight to Europe back then.

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