The journey of Qarabag’s Dino Ndlovu: From sleeping in a train station toilet to playing Chelsea

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How far would you go to make it in football? Maybe not as far as the Azerbaijani champions’ South African striker who will realise his dream

Dino Ndlovu idolised Didier Drogba growing up and supported Chelsea, but he has had to work as hard as anyone to make sure he lines up against them in the Champions League. 

The 27-year-old has been a pivotal part of Qarabag's campaign, with his away goal versus Copenhagen key to securing Azerbaijani football’s first ever Champions League club qualification. His strike held such importance in the country that Ndlovu went on to meet the Azeri president Ilham Aliyev. 

Now the No.9 will line up against Alvaro Morata, Eden Hazard and N'Golo Kante in front of 69,000 fans at the Baku Olympic Stadium, but as he told Goal, his journey to the top level of football hasn't been easy and said that he even slept in a train station bathroom just to take part in trials as a teenager. 

"I started playing in the streets, like many South Africans," he said. "I had the chance to move to an academy of excellence as a 16-year-old but my mum had to hold me back as she didn’t want to be alone, while my brother was working in the mine on the outskirts of the township.

"I got another chance at Platinum Stars, they were having trials in my hometown, I went there and got selected for the second round of trials but I had to travel to Johannesburg. My mother had to lend the money to travel from a friend of hers.

Dino Ndlovu GFX

"I went to Johannesburg for three days with no money left, I got there and I didn’t have anywhere to sleep. I snuck into the train station and slept in the bathroom for three days. It was worth it because I got offered a contract to play in the Platinum Stars youth academy.

"They saw a lot of potential in me and I scored a lot of goals for the youth team but I had problems. When you have never been a professional before and you start getting paid a big salary, I began to really misuse my money. I didn’t focus on my football and my form dropped.

“I lost focus, didn’t play too much and all the time I was out with friends and overspending. In 2011, the club didn’t renew my contract and at that time my wife was pregnant with my daughter. I didn’t have a job and I was the only breadwinner, even for my mother, and I was without a contract.

“I hit rock bottom, I said to myself I need to really get my act together. My manager sat down with me and my family and said I should leave South Africa. I was in my comfort zone and it stopped me displaying my talent to my full potential.

“Bnei Yehuda signed me after only two days on trial and I did really well in Israel. Maccabi Haifa then wanted me and got me for $1.5 million. The numbers that I saw in the contract at Maccabi Haifa were overwhelming, I couldn’t believe that in a year and a half, things went from rock bottom to come together.

“I didn’t know who Qarabag were. They came in for me while I was in Cyprus. Antalyaspor and the Genclerbirligi from Turkey wanted me as well as a club in Greece. I wanted to win things instead of playing in mid-table so I went to Qarabag.

“Everyone in South Africa who plays football, you ask them what is your dream. They will tell you: 'To play football in Europe in the Champions League and play for the national team.' You can’t buy this feeling in the supermarket, you have to work for it. It is one of the best moments of my career.”

Chelsea will play their first ever game in Azerbaijan having beaten last season’s domestic double winners 6-0 at Stamford Bridge in their opening group stage match. It is the furthest distance that the English champions have ever travelled to play a Champions League match. 

Ndlovu admits that he has been a fan of Chelsea since he was a boy but adds that his side got caught up in the occasion in the match the first time around, as they treated Chelsea like television stars and not fellow professionals.   

“The first team I watched growing up was Barcelona. Then I became a Chelsea fan. I was a huge fan of Chelsea and I still am. I was happy to see Didier Drogba, an African player doing it at my favourite team.

Didier Drogba Frank Lampard

“Even today, he is still the person I look up to every time. Benni McCarthy and Drogba were the players I admired most growing up. McCarthy was another one of my idols as a South African playing well in Europe.

“We always prepare to win games. When you play to draw, you fall away. We are not thinking about a draw against Chelsea, we want to win this game. We are confident enough we can play our game and win.

“We are playing at home and I think there’s 69,000 tickets sold so we will have a nice atmosphere in our stadium. I think it is normal for every club that appears in the Champions League. It was like the first day in school at Stamford Bridge.

“After that first day, you can start feeling normal and comfortable there. We weren’t afraid of Chelsea but we gave them too much respect. We gave them respect as television stars and we didn’t treat them like fellow professionals. We were like groupies.

“We paid a massive price in terms of goals on that day. After that day, we became more comfortable on that stage with who we are and what football we can play at this level. We thought: 'We can do something in this group, it is not over yet.' The next two games, we want to get something out of them.

Dino Ndlovu GFX

"Even with confidence, it won’t be easy. Cesc Fabregas, Kante and Hazard, those players you think you can push them aside but they are strong, smart and quick. You control and they are so quick and right on top of you trying to win the ball.

“It is something we have learned, to come from the Azerbaijan league, you really learn that there’s certain tactics you need to compete in the Champions League. I really think that in the last two games we will do even better.”

Ndlovu was keen to swap shirts with a Chelsea player after achieving a dream of walking out at Stamford Bridge but he feared the reaction from his fierce manager Gurban Gurbanov after losing so comprehensively. Qarabag’s No.9 says that he will swap shirts in Baku if his side achieve a positive result.

“I wanted to swap shirts with either Eden Hazard or Michy Batshuayi but the problem was that the coach has a big character," he said. "We lost 6-0 and I had to say to myself, 'I can’t swap shirts this time.'

“I spoke with them both, I said I would like your shirt but the coach will be really angry if I walk in with a Chelsea shirt after losing 6-0… I couldn’t swap shirts, I had to respect my own shirt. I would like to swap shirts on Wednesday - if we get a better result. I would most like Hazard’s or Michy Batshuayi’s shirt.”

Dino Ndlovu GFX

Qarabag's entry into the Champions League surprised many in the football world but Ndlovu has fully got to grips in his new surroundings. The club are often described as the team with no home and they still represent the region of Agdam which is still gripped by the Nagorno-Karabakh war.

Foreign players like Ndlovu are shown a 20 minute DVD to explain the history of where the club originates from as it moved when its old stadium was bombed on several occasions. Conflict continues between Armenian-backed separatists and Azeri minorities, which has led to an estimated 30,000 deaths and displaced over one million people.

Chelsea's match will be played in Baku, which is not only a safe location but a popular holiday destination. Ndlovu is delighted with his decision to have joined the club to experience a new culture. 

“For me, it is the best country any footballer could imagine," he said. "It is a big city, and without Baku, there’s no Azerbaijan. The future of this country lies in Baku. My family love it here, my daughter goes to school here. It is a very open-minded country. The crime rate is low, there’s no pressure in terms of living here. The pressure is only when I play for Qarabag, apart from football everything is a sailing ship.

“We never doubted getting to the Champions League. Our coach is a big character and he never doubted what they could do. We have been together for a while, every year we change only one or two players. We have had the same team for the past five seasons, we never had doubts.

“Even when we faced Chelsea’s players who maybe one of their player’s salaries equates to about our yearly budget as a whole, we knew that it is 11 versus 11 and we can get there. You can have all the money in the world but it is about being on the pitch.

“It goes down to the individual battle. We enjoy our experience. We have no aims, we just want to do our best on the pitch and beat it next year. It is a good feeling to rub shoulders with big players, in big stadiums, in beautiful cities.

"Our style of play gets compared to Barcelona at home, we play with possession and teams park the bus against us. All our players in our starting XI are internationals. We start games for our national teams. I think our players are exceptional.

“We are not a selling club, we keep our team together for many years. We have a lot of players who have been here for six or seven years. They stay here because they are talented, we pay the best salaries in the league. Our guys all know each other inside out for that very reason on the pitch.”

Ndlovu has never spent more than two seasons at a club and he is approaching the final six months of his Qarabag contract in his second year at the Azerbaijan double winners. The South Africa frontman is set to sit down for talks soon and he is open to staying longer at his current club than any he has been at before. 

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“For now, my contract is finishing in six months time. We haven’t discussed anything yet with the club. My manager said he is happy with me and when we come back from the festive break, we will sit down with the management and see what they put on the table.

“Even if I don’t get a good offer, I can say that I am having the best time of my career at Qarabag, my family is happy here and if I get a good contract offer then I am happy to stay here.”

A winning goal against Chelsea would eclipse the one he netted previously against Copenhagen and would offer him that bit more bargaining power.

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