Warning to Rele? Five South African youngsters who lived to rue early moves abroad

Orlando Pirates attacker Relebohile Mofokeng is currently being urged to seal a move overseas but these five players’ experience suggest he needs to choose carefully.

Orlando Pirates winger Relebohile Mofokeng has been linked to a number of clubs overseas following a brilliant campaign with the Sea Robbers.

The School of Excellence graduate scored five goals and provided six assists in 38 games in all competitions in 2023-24, winning the MTN8 and Nedbank Cup, and also earned his maiden Bafana Bafana call and cap during the 2026 World Cup qualifiers against Nigeria and Zimbabwe, featuring in the latter as a late substitute.

With that, the 19-year-old seems to have the world at his feet and opinion is divided on whether now is the right time to make a move abroad.

However, as ‘Rele’ weighs his options before making a decision, it would be wise to look other young South African prospects who jumped on a move abroad when it was seemingly still too early and lived to regret it.

Cassius Mailula

Cassius Mailula turning out for Toronto FC. Photo: Icon Sports

Like Mofokeng, Cassius Mailula had the world at his feet during his maiden season in the PSL, the 2022-23 campaign, when he seemed to get everything right.

He scored 15 goals and provided four assists in all competitions and went on to win the PSL Player of the Year Award. By this time, his stock had risen significantly and was attracting interest from Europe.

There was plenty of push for Mailula to make the jump while others, like Bafana Bafana coach Hugo Broos, advised him against such an early move as it would prove costly.

The attacker made the move anyway and signed for MLS club Toronto FC, penning a three-year deal until 2026, with the option for another.

However, Broos’ words have come true as Mailula has become a bit-part player who rarely gets into the matchday squad. He has managed just five appearances, scoring two goals.

Worryingly, his debut appearance came in April, the month he opened his goal account, but that was not enough to convince his coach as he was soon sent to train and play with the reserve team.

Olwethu Makhanya

Former Stellenbosch FC defender Olwethu Makhanya is another one who seems to be regretting an early move abroad.

The central defender had a great debut season in the PSL in 2022-23 and was also named Nedbank Cup Most Promising Player.

He had attracted interest from Mamelodi Sundowns but opted to move to America to sign for Philadelphia Union.

However, things have not gone to plan as he is yet to play for the club in the MLS.

Makhanya has had to deal with stints in the reserve side, of which he has played 10 matches for, and even though he is still just 20, his career has stalled since moving to the US when it should have taken off.

Phakamani Mahlambi

For Phakamani Mahlambi, his former coach at now defunt Bidvest Wits Gavin Hunt summed up his situation in a recent interview: “Biggest waste of talent, biggest disgrace,” Hunt said on YouTube channel, This Is Football Africa.

Mahlambi was a talented attacker who was once dubbed the ‘next Benni McCarthy,’ but fell off in spectacular fashion.

The player had a great two-year stint at Wits, showing great pace, dribbling skills and an eye for goal and claimed the PSL title in 2015-16.

He then moved to Egyptian giants Al Ahly and his career seemed to stall. He struggled to get into the team, managing just 12 league appearances while scoring one goal, and after one season, the Red Devils cut ties.

He would soon return home and join Mamelodi Sundowns and his attitude did not change. The Brazilians loaned him out to AmaZulu and then Chippa United but he still struggled.

Mahlambi’s lifestyle was also a major problem, especially after his big-money move to Egypt. His love for parties and booze would land him in trouble as he was later arrested over domestic violence allegations.

Kermit Erasmus

Kermit Erasmus playing for French club Lens. Photo: Icon Sports

Now released by Orlando Pirates after his second spell at the club, Kermit Erasmus is another one who lived to regret an early move abroad.

After jut one season at SuperSport United, Erasmus moved to Dutch side Feyenoord in 2008 but struggled to get going, managing just four appearances before he was loaned out to Excelsior, then playing in the second division.

He scored 11 goals in 29 matches but it was not enough to convince Feyenoord to call him back. Erasmus returned home and linked up with SuperSport United again.

He would later sign for Pirates and then French club Rennes, who terminated his contract after a less than impressive stint.

After short stints in Sweden and Portugal, he was back in South Africa again, this time with Cape Town City in 2019, before two unsuccessful years with Mamelodi Sundowns and then Pirates.

Philani Khwela

Another former SuperSport United player who struggled abroad, Philani Khwela joined Feyenoord’s junior side in 2009 but rarely got a look in.

The Dutch club cut ties after just one year and he returned home where his career took a nosedive.

Now playing for ABC Motsepe League side Alexandra Black Aces, the 32-year-old attacker is not the same player that set the world alight 15 years ago.

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Joel Oliver

Joel Oliver is a seasoned multimedia sports journalist with a rich background in covering diverse football stories and events in South Africa and beyond.

His extensive coverage spans subjects touching on the PSL, with a focus on the Big Three (Orlando Pirates, Kaizer Chiefs & Mamelodi Sundowns), Bafana Bafana and Banyana Banyana.