Bafana's Luther Singh eyes Barcelona move in wake of Tokyo qualification
South Africa striker Luther Singh played a key role in booking Bafana Bafana's spot at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, finishing third at the recent Under-23 Africa Cup of Nations, but the versatile attacker is looking well beyond next year.
The Moreirense starlet, on loan from Portuguese top flight side Braga, is focused on cementing a place in the senior national team, but his ultimate target is to eventually line up for Barcelona, much to his father's dismay.
"If you don't [reach] your short-term goals, you can still make your long-term goals," he explains to ESPN.
"For me, [I want] to see myself playing in the Braga first team. It's a club which is well-known in Europe and in Portugal, so first of all for me is to break into the team there.
"Second of all is to see myself playing in any of the top three or four leagues in the world. I'm still aiming to play for Barcelona one day. It's always been a dream and the club that I like.
"[My dad] and I are big rivals because he likes Real Madrid and I don't. We have our arguments about the two clubs and about some players. He will be more than happy if I go there [to Madrid]."
The 22-year-old Singh, who was born in Soweto and is of Indian descent, finds comfort in planning both for the immediate and distant futures. For a player who has often had to wait his turn, this could be seen as a coping mechanism.
Having been brought into the famed Stars of Africa Academy just before his 11th birthday, it took a while before Singh was old enough to make his breakthrough.
His career began to take off in his late teens at second tier Swedish side GAIS in 2015, and he earned a move to Braga in January 2017.
A honeymoon phase in his career quickly gave way to new challenges. Not only did Singh struggle to break into the first team at Braga, but he also endured heartbreak with Bafana Bafana.
The promising youth international was handed his first senior cap in March 2017 by then-caretaker coach Owen da Gama against Angola. In May that year, Stuart Baxter became Bafana's permanent boss. Unfortunately for Singh, his experience under the English coach was testing to say the least.
The first major sign of trouble came in the 2018 COSAFA Cup quarter-final against Madagascar in June. Singh was at the heart of many of South Africa's attacking forays. However, he missed a gilt-edged chance to put Bafana ahead in the 20th minute when his shot was saved one-on-one by Jean Dieu-Donné Randrianasolo.
The game ended 0-0 and went to penalties. Then, things went from bad to worse for young Singh. His somewhat casually-struck penalty was saved by Randrianasolo and Bafana were subsequently sent packing.
"Luther said afterwards that Stuart [Baxter] really had a go at him after that miss," Farouk Khan, the Stars of Africa Academy's Director of Coaching, told ESPN.
"He really gave the boy a tongue-lashing, but live on air, he said: 'No, it's a youngster. He'll learn from his mistake.' You get coaches who say one thing in the press conference and tell you something totally different," Khan continued.
"I was very disappointed. I didn't mention it to Stuart - I haven't had a chance yet. Hopefully, one day, when we meet, I want to say to him that it wasn't really fair to do that. Subsequently, he was excluded from any further participation [in the senior national team]."
The easy option for Singh would have been to retreat into the shadows and let his dreams stagnate. However, he went out on loan to Chaves midway through the 2018-19 season, scoring twice in 17 top-flight appearances for them.
He missed out on Baxter's Africa Cup of Nations squad this year as Bafana made the quarter-finals in Egypt. Molefi Ntseki subsequently replaced the former Kaizer Chiefs and SuperSport United mentor in the national team hotseat.
Baxter, who exited the Bafana set up after Afcon, explained his decision to confront the youngster, telling ESPN: "Being harsh with Luther - there's something called tough love, isn't there?
"I wasn't harsh in as much as putting him down. I was harsh in as much as letting him know what I thought would be best for him in the future.
"Before the game -- the evening before, when we were doing penalties -- Luther was putting one in the top corner, one in the bottom corner, because he's a talented boy.
"I said to him: 'Make sure that you know that you're doing. If you get one tomorrow, this is not a show now to show how many different penalties you can take. Be comfortable with one, so that if you take one tomorrow, you score.'
"When we got the decisive penalty, I think in Luther's mind, it was the same: 'Where should I put it? Top corner? Bottom corner?' He ended up not doing anything.
"I know Luther was hugely disappointed, so all I said was, 'What did I tell you?' I didn't [lambaste] him. I just made him aware that the responsibility should have brought him to a place where he just thought, 'Put this one away, you just move on.'"
Baxter saw parallels between Singh and Cristiano Ronaldo during his time at Manchester United. The 66-year-old maintains that Singh needed to be pushed to a higher level, as the Portuguese superstar was in his early years at the Red Devils.
Explaining his subsequent decision to omit Singh from his Africa Cup of Nations squad, Baxter explained: "When we selected the squad, we felt that the journey for Luther was just starting to pick up speed [in Portugal].
"We didn't want to bring him in and give him a false dawn. Kermit [Erasmus] was very similar. Kermit was just putting his career back together, really, with Cape Town City. To bring him back too early into the national squad would have been more of a hindrance than a help.
"When people are selected, they want to also play. They want a chance. When you bring them in and they don't play, it sometimes gets in the way and knocks their confidence."
According to Baxter, Singh now stands a good chance of catching current national team boss Ntseki's eye.
"When Luther was at the COSAFA Cup, I think he was very satisfied with his progress," Baxter said. "He was [too] comfortable with his talent.
"I think the challenges of being abroad have brought him through that, and I think now, he's ready to come back into the international setup."
Baxter struck a sincere tone when speaking of a player who he perhaps had on his hands at the right place, but the wrong time. Nevertheless, in Singh's opinion, his former coach was off the mark in his belief that he was complacent.
Singh added: "For me, I wasn't satisfied. I'm not satisfied even today with where I am.
"Where I am now is not where I'm happy at. It's not where I want to end. Where I was at the COSAFA Cup wasn't where I wanted to be either. There was more to come.
"I think everyone has their own opinions about people and about players as well. [Baxter] is an experienced coach and he knows what he speaks [about], but that's not what I feel. He read me wrong in that incident."
After Chaves were relegated at the end of 2018-19, Singh went out on loan again to Moreirense in August 2019. Here, he has taken his game a step further, scoring three league goals in six starts and four substitute appearances.
Perhaps most notably, he scored against giants Benfica in late September.
"It's a dream come true for me, because Benfica is one of the biggest clubs in Portugal. Not everyone scores against Benfica," Singh said.
Two months later, another target was met. South Africa beat Ghana on penalties in the bronze final at the recent U23 Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt to qualify for the Olympics.
"The day I scored against Benfica, it was a feeling I can't express. Last night [the win over Ghana] was the same," he said during this interview a day later.
He was unsurprisingly handed the Man of the Match prize after the Ghana game. After all, it was his shot which opened the scoring against the Black Stars via a deflection off Habib Mohammed. The match ultimately finished 2-2 before going to penalties.
Previously, Singh had picked up the Man of the Match prize in the 0-0 group stage draw with Nigeria. He now has his eyes set squarely on forcing his way into Ntseki's senior squad.
"I'm working to get back into the Bafana squad -- and not just to go there for one game, but to stay there, to make a mark for myself, to be a regular," Singh added.
Singh grew up watching some of South Africa's most talented players hone their skills at Stars of Africa. When he moved abroad, a new environment with fresh challenges only inspired him to improve.
"When I moved to Europe, my mindset changed to say that I don't only want to be the best player in South Africa. I want to be the best in Africa. That's what I always keep in mind."
Many of South Africa's youth players have showed plenty of promise, but have never reached their full potential. Singh is determined to go one step further and has a message for South African footballers at large.
"Personally, I can only say to the players of South Africa that we have a lot of good players and a lot of talented players," he said.
"The players just need to work hard and listen to the people they're with; listen to the mentors if they have, to their coaches, and continue working and never give up no matter how hard they tried or how many times they've failed.
"We mustn't let people dictate where we can end up. We must always set goals to get where we want to be and not where people think we should be."