South African youngster Thabo Cele has completed a dream move to Portuguese giants Benfica after signing a five-year contract with the Lisbon club this week.
The KwaMashu-born youngster was a stand-out performer for the KwaZulu-Natal Academy in the 2015 Durban Under-19 International Football Tournament and after last year’s event won a move to Campeonato de Portugal side Real Sport Clube de Massama ahead of the 2016/17 season.
But after a number of impressive displays for them, netting three goals in 21 games this season, the 20-year-old has since been signed by Benfica, one of the most historic and respected sides in European football who have developed some of the game’s biggest names.
He will continue to play for Real Sport Clube as they fight for promotion, before moving to Benfiica ahead of the start of the new season.
“The KZN Academy is proud of Thabo for the hard work and perseverance he has demonstrated,” says KZN Academy Managing Director, Carlos Catalino. “When Thabo moved to Portugal in August 2016, we were apprehensive given his age, but he made it clear from the beginning that he was not looking to come back to Durban, but to do whatever it took to forge a career for himself in Europe.
“This move to Benfica is a massive boost, not only for Thabo but for the Academy and the work it seeks to achieve. Our sincere gratitude go to the
KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Government, eThekwini Municipality and the South African Football Association for having supported this football development project since inception in 2014.
“We hope Thabo’s move will inspire all other young players to work harder and more importantly, to be mentally strong to overcome challenges posed by being a professional player. This is just the beginning for him. Now the hard work begins.”
Benfica are the current Portuguese champions having won the last three Primeira Liga titles in a row.
They are coached by Rui Vitória, one of the most respected up-and-coming coaches in Europe, and count among their current stars Brazilian internationals Jonas and Luisão, and Portuguese national team stars Eliseu and Nélson Semedo.
The Lisbon side currently head the Primeira Liga by a single point from rivals FC Porto after 23 games in the 34-match season.
Players who have represented the KZN Academy in the past three editions of the Durban U19 International Tournament include, Sandile Mthethwa, Brian Hlongwa, Menzi Ndwandwe, Nkanyiso Zungu and Velemseni Ndwandwe, but Cele is the first to join a top team in Europe.
The Academy was started in 2014 as a project to identify, provide expert coaching and forge a professional career for players from across the KwaZulu-Natal province.