Analysis: Luther Singh Shining in Portugal
By Zach Lowy
“Perhaps even more concerning than the lack of silverware, though, has been South Africa’s failure to export its best prospects to Europe. The likes of Senegal, Nigeria, and Morocco have all reaped rewards from sending homegrown players to Europe, but take a look at South Africa’s squad from last month, and the dearth of footballers playing overseas sticks out like a sore thumb.”
South Africa’s Pipeline to Europe Running Dry
I wrote those words for BET Central on November 14, 2019, and 16 months later, it doesn’t seem much has changed. Whilst other African countries such as Mali and the Ivory Coast continue to export their young footballers to Europe at an increasing rate, South Africa continues to lag behind the rest. From Stuart Baxter’s 24-man squad for last November’s African Cup of Nations qualifiers against São Tomé and Príncipe, only five players are currently plying their trade in Europe. The rest are employed in South Africa’s Premier Soccer League, apart from Kamohelo Mokotjo, who is currently playing for MLS side FC Cincinnati, and Darren Keet, who has been a free agent since his contract at Belgian club OH Leuven expired last year.
Of those five, Keagan Dolly has logged 395 minutes in Ligue 1 this season for Montpellier, whilst Bongani Zungu has logged 440 minutes in all competitions for Steven Gerrard’s Rangers, who recently broke a 10-year title drought and ceased Celtic’s domestic dominance in Scotland. Percy Tau has finally managed to gain a work permit and play for Brighton Hove & Albion after three consecutive loan spells in Belgium, but he has only managed 85 minutes in the Premier League for Graham Potter’s Seagulls. Having returned to England following a five-year spell at SuperSport United, Dean Furman has played just 495 minutes in League Two for Carlisle United, currently 13th in the table.
The youngest player from that list is Luther Singh, who has played 1,565 minutes in Liga NOS for Paços de Ferreira. Alongside Thibang Phete and Sphephelo Sithole, currently playing three hours down the Portuguese coast and guarding the midfield for Belenenses SAD, Singh is one of the few South African players who is starting regularly in one of Europe’s major leagues.
Early Days of Singh
Born in Soweto, Singh joined the prestigious Stars of Africa Football Academy in Brixton, Johannesburg at the age of 11, after being scouted by Farouk Khan, one of the leading youth coaches in South Africa.
“We were conducting a training session and I noticed this youngster who showed so much raw talent that I asked his dad if he’d mind coming to the academy,” said Khan in an exclusive interview with BET Central.
“Luther grew up in one of the poorest areas in South Africa, the Noordgesig township, but he went to school away from that area in Mayfair West where the academy is based.”
As one of the youngest players in the academy, Singh began playing in the first team at 14 years of age, plying his trade in the SAFA Regional League – South Africa’s fourth division. At 16, he took a trip to Rio de Janeiro, training at Fluminense and Vasco da Gama and impressing during his two-month spell in Brazil, but whilst both teams wanted him to continue trialling and playing in tournaments, he eventually had to return home to complete his studies.
His rapid success caught the eye of several clubs in the Premier Soccer League, but Khan advised him to reject the offers and test his skills abroad. On August 18, 2015, Singh earned a move to GAIS in the Swedish second division, with his teammate Pule Maraisane joining him in swapping Johannesburg for Gothenburg. It was clear from the start that he was too good for this level; after scoring on his debut against Degerfors IF, he went on to register nine goals and three assists in 28 appearances during the 2015/16 Superettan season, attracting interest from Swansea City, Pescara, and Real Madrid’s B team. Instead, Singh chose to join Braga on a free transfer on January 21, 2017, becoming the latest South African player to test his skills in Portugal after Haashim Domingo, Bongani Zungu and Thibang Phete, who played alongside Singh at the Stars of Africa academy.
Life At Braga
Singh’s start to life in Braga was interrupted by international duty, as he was called up by manager Thabo Senong for the 2017 Africa U-20 Cup of Nations in Zambia. Expectations were high after Singh led South Africa to the 2016 COSAFA Under-20 Championship Final, winning the Golden Boot award with five goals in the tournament, and he set the standard high on the opening match by scoring a hat-trick against Cameroon.
Amajita advanced to the semifinals where they would lose to eventual champions Zambia in extra time, but it didn’t stop Singh from grabbing the Golden Boot award and earning a spot in the CAF Best XI with four goals and two assists. South Africa would go on to earn a place in the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup in South Korea, but they struggled to impress, finishing bottom of their group behind Uruguay, Italy, and Japan; their sole goal of the tournament came via an own goal from Japan defender Takehiro Tomiyasu.
Nevertheless, Singh returned to Braga with a tiger in his tank and showcased his potential in Portugal’s second tier, providing 11 goals and 4 assists in 35 appearances for Braga’s B team. It seemed natural, then, that after renewing his contract until 2023, the Soweto-born winger tested his skills in the Primeira, joining Chaves on loan in January 2019. He quickly became a starter, earning Man of the Match in his debut against Feirense and scoring in a 2-1 win against Tondela, but it wasn’t enough to prevent his side from being relegated after a two-year spell in the top-flight. Singh ended the season with two goals, zero assists, five yellow cards, and one red card in 17 appearances in Liga NOS for Chaves.
Another Loan Spell
After the completion of the season, Singh headed back to South Africa to participate in the 2019 COSAFA Cup. They began their tournament at the Princess Magogo Stadium, facing off against Botswana in the quarterfinals. Singh opened the scoring in the 19th minute, and the Bafana Bafana doubled their lead shortly after via Grant Margeman. However, the Zebras halved the margin following the break, and they managed to grab an equalizer in stoppage time when Thatayaone Ditlhokwe’s header eluded Reyaad Pieterse. Botswana would go on to win on penalties as Singh watched from the sidelines, before losing to Zambia in the Final in Durban.
Unable to beat out the likes of Francisco Trincão and Ricardo Horta for a place in Ricardo Sá Pinto’s roster, Singh headed to Moreirense on a season-long loan on August 13, 2019. Within three minutes of coming on for his debut against Gil Vicente, he made an instant impact, controlling a loose ball with his chest, trotting towards the edge of the box, and launching a rocket into the top-right corner. It was a goal of the highest calibre and a sign of things to come.
One month after making his debut, Singh was rewarded with his first start for the club, playing on the right flank against Benfica. The deadlock was broken with seconds of the restart; Alex Soares nodded Anthony D’Alberto’s cross into the path of Singh, who coolly slotted the ball past Odysseas Vlachodimos with a half-volley. However, after manager Vítor Campelos subbed Singh off, Benfica would quickly equalize via Rafa Silva before Haris Seferović’s towering header snatched all three points for the defending champions.
From that point on, Singh established himself as a fixture in the attack, impressing on both wings and finding the back of the net in a 1-1 draw against Rio Ave, but his progress came to a screeching halt in December when he sustained a foot injury that would sideline him for several months. He returned to the line-up on June 12 in a 0-1 defeat to Rio Ave and would log close to 300 minutes in the remaining league matches as Moreirense finished a respectable seventh place in Liga NOS.
Yes…Another Loan Spell
The 23-year-old returned to Braga in the summer, but once again found himself surplus to requirements following the arrivals of Iuri Medeiros and Nicolás Gaitán, and elected to depart to Paços de Ferreira on a season-long loan. He quickly became a starter under Pepa, playing the full 90 minutes against Portimonense, Sporting CP, and Vitória de Guimarães, before jetting off to Rustenburg for the October friendlies. Going up against Namibia in a friendly match, Singh opened the scoring for the Bafana Bafana, latching onto a pass from Kermit Erasmus and tucking the ball past Virgil Vries. Despite only registering one goal and one assist in the following three months, Paços de Ferreira brushed off a shaky start to climb to fifth in the table. Singh, meanwhile, started all but one match in the league, a 2-0 victory over Braga where he was prevented from playing due to the terms of his loan agreement.
After the win against the Arsenalistas, Pepa elected to bench Singh on January 24 in an away match against Marítimo; nevertheless, the South African came off the bench in the 67th minute and quickly made his presence known. Receiving a short pass in the box, he found himself surrounded by four opposing defenders, but rather than attempt a shot, he played a quick one-two with Luíz Carlos before accelerating into space and slotting the third and final goal past Amir Abedzadeh.
Coming Into His Own
From that moment onwards, Singh has finally managed to combine his brilliant physical and technical skills with a consistent end product in front of goal. He provided the opening assist in the Beavers’ following two matches against Gil Vicente and Tondela, but his side were rendered goalless against Portimonense and Sporting CP. It meant that the match against Vitória S.C. became all the more crucial, as Os Vimaranenses trailed Paços by just three points for the final Europa League spot.
Singh came close to breaking the deadlock with a powerful driven shot in the ninth minute, but it was saved by Bruno Varela; instead, Óscar Estupiñán opened the scoring for Vitória. Nevertheless, Singh would step up to the task and create the equalizer shortly after, collecting the ball from the left flank and firing it into the path of João Pedro, who scored a dazzling bicycle kick. Paços would go on to win and widen the gap via a goal from Hélder Ferreira, as Singh tormented Vitória’s right flank until being subbed off shortly before the final whistle.
“Luther is more than just a goalscorer, he’s also a provider, and physically, he’s a unique specimen,” stated Khan. “He can use both feet well, he’s pacey, he’s very intelligent, his range of passing is great, and overall he’s a complete player. He can compete with the best in Portugal, and he will do the same in Europe if given the chance.”
After a humiliating 0-3 defeat to Santa Clara on February 27, Paços needed a strong result against Nacional at the Estádio da Mata Real. They won a corner kick in the 15th minute, and as João Vigário’s attempted clearance bounced towards the edge of the box, Singh lined up the shot with all the power, finesse, and confidence in the world, firing a ferocious trivela shot with into the left corner. It was a goal that would lift even the most curmudgeonly of supporters off their seats, a goal that stunned each of his teammates, and that gave Paços the early momentum.
Whilst Nacional came close to adding an equalizer, Os Castores grabbed their second goal of the night via another set-piece. Pedro Rebocho’s free-kick bounced off several players and towards the edge of the box, where it would be met by an onrushing Luther Singh, who fired a rocket of a shot past Riccardo Piscitelli and into the back of the net. Alongside the two golaços, Singh completed four out of six long balls, made two key passes, and won four fouls as Paços bounced back from their defeat in the Azores and claimed an important home victory.
“These are two goals to remember, but the team was very good and I only managed to score thanks to the work of everybody. They are those goals that happen as a result of the inspiration of the moment and I was happy” stated Singh in an interview with Portuguese outlet Record.
At 23 years old, Singh is one of the few Bafana Bafana stars who are consistently shining in one of Europe’s major leagues, but despite this success at such a young age, he hasn’t lost that humility and work ethic that allowed him to swiftly ascend the ranks in Johannesburg.
“We stress on the importance of psychosocial behaviour, the type of training we expose them to is very demanding, but he never complained,” recalled Khan. “He was always working his butt off in training with physical coaches, getting back to training, doing homework, it was a demanding regiment and I think that prepared him mentally for Europe. A lot of South African players get homesick when they come to Europe and return, Luther, is different because although there have been several opportunities, I’ve advised him it wouldn’t be in his interest.”
Two years after earning promotion to the top flight, Paços de Ferreira are currently in the driver’s seat for the final Europa League spot with a six-point cushion ahead of Vitória S.C. with 11 matches remaining.