Willard Katsande has been on a remarkable journey that has taken him from street vendor to one of the most influential players at Kaizer Chiefs. His story is an example of how quickly fortunes can change in football.
From street vendor to Kaizer Chiefs star, Willard Kasande tells his inspiring tale
KICK OFF: You have grown into an influential senior player at Kaizer Chiefs since you arrived five years ago …
WILLARD KATSANDE: I arrived here as a nobody with a lot to prove because the previous season I had not played much at Ajax Cape Town. I was even called derogatory names by some people, which I have since realised is normal because of the weight of this brand called Kaizer Chiefs. The expectation here is always that the club should sign high-profile players and whenever they sign low-profile players, like was the case with me, it raises eyebrows. The biggest challenge for me was that my first game was against Orlando Pirates in the 2011 MTN8 final, which we lost. I came on a substitute and it was a very difficult game for me ... I didn’t even see anything in that game.
Just how were you signed then, when you had started just four games at Ajax?
It was very funny – Chiefs came to Zimbabwe during the off-season to watch Lincoln Zvasiya in the national team as he had already been to Naturena for trials. I had actually left my base in Cape Town at the end of my first season there [2010/11] with the new coach [Maarten Stekelenburg] having already told me that I was not in his plans for the new season because he didn’t want to waste a foreigner space on me. Ajax’s plan was to loan me to Vasco da Gama in the National First Division. I then performed very well in that national team game [against Zambia] and luckily Chiefs were watching.
What happened next?
Chiefs then contacted my agent right away and told him they wanted my services. When my agent first told me about Chiefs’ interest I thought he was just kidding. After the game I happened to be on the same flight with Bobby [Motaung] and he told me right away, ‘Papa, we need to bring you to Jozi for work purposes’. Still, I didn’t believe him and thought he was just flattering me since I had a good game. The next day when I arrived at my base in Cape Town they told me I had to pack my bags because I was leaving. You didn’t have the best of starts to your time here at Chiefs ... My first game was horrible, like I said. After losing, there were so many bad comments about me. After that cup final loss, which was played in September, I never played or sat on the bench again until in December when I got my first start in strange circumstances. Lincoln was due to play right-back that day against Free State Stars as Jimmy Tau was suspended, with Thomas Sweswe and Dominic Isaacs at centre-back. Zhaimu Jambo was at left-back with Tinashe Nengomasha holding. I was only in the squad of 20 that went to camp, but I was one of two that were on standby. Isaacs then got sick just before we left the hotel for the stadium. I had already packed my bag into my car because I thought I would be in the stands. Out of the blue coach VV [Vladimir Vermezovic] told me that I would be playing at right-back.
He didn’t even ask me if I could even play in that position. I told myself, ‘OK, let me take my chance and all I will do is just defend because I might not cope with having to go up and down’. Luckily for me the back four were all Zimbabweans, with Lincoln moving to partner Thomas in central defence, Jambo at left-back with Tinashe holding, so they all helped me a lot in settling down. In the end I had a fantastic game and we won 2-1. The next game against AmaZulu I didn’t play because Jimmy was back, but the coach told me that I need to be ready mentally as I will start playing after the Christmas break. After that break I made 12 consecutive starts. Then came coach Stuart Baxter the next season ... I remember the club released about 12 players just as Baxter came in, but I
was lucky enough that he explained to me right away how he needed me to play. From there onwards everyday was a good learning day and he would tell me that, ‘I see you doing this alright, son, now it is time to move to the next step’. At the time, I was picking up a lot of yellow cards and being targeted with nobody giving me a chance. But Baxter was there to defend me all the time. Gradually I began to understand how I need to apply myself and it helped me a lot to have someone like him in terms of understanding my role. I am still enjoying my football up to today because of Baxter.
What does it take to succeed at Chiefs?
It takes character and a big heart. What I have been through in life has taught me to be grateful for every opportunity I get. I lost my father when I was nine and life suddenly took a sharp curve downwards for me e so much that my mom – who was not ot educated – could not afford to buy us a loaf of bread. I then became a vendor and would have to leave what I was selling on the streets to attend football training. At one point I stayed in the rural areas and would wake up at 3am to work in the fields. By 7am, I had already chopped down wood from the mountains and was already training cows to work the fields. I don’t want to be back in poverty again and struggle the way I did. When I joined Chiefs a close friend said to me, ‘let us hope that you will not be the first Zimbabwean to be a failure at Chiefs!’. Those words stuck with me and even though he was joking, I realised that in every joke there is element of truth.
After last season’s trophyless campaign, what is the mind-set of the players at the moment?
Obviously we are professionals and mentally we need to be strong in every situation. If you play this game, you need to be aware that there will be ups and downs. It is how you handle these challenges that gives you the character to last in this game.
Why has Chiefs not succeeded over the last year?
Last season was difficult because we were the defending champions which meant we were the hunted. This season we are hunters, so there will be less pressure on us. Now we need to enjoy our football and try to score goals. We will just have to deal with whatever happens thereafter.