The Kaizer Chiefs stalwart has finally earned a move abroad, and opens up about the surprising switch and the difficult end to his career at Naturena.
When Siphiwe Tshabalala’s proposed move to Nottingham Forrest in 2011 fell through, many thought the player’s dream of playing in Europe was over. But at the age of 33, the midfielder caught almost everyone by surprise when he signed a two-year contract with newly-promoted Turkish Premier League side BB Erzurumspor. Speaking to KICK OFF’s Zola Doda from Turkey, “Shabba” talks about his arrival in his new surroundings while reflecting on the highs and lows at Kaizer Chiefs.
KICK OFF: Shabba, thanks a lot for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us. How are things at your new home in Turkey?
Siphiwe Tshabalala: Everything is sharp my man, even the weather is good. When I arrived here, I received such a nice reception. Ever since there was interest from Turkey, whenever I opened my phone I used to get messages from supporters from Erzurumspor begging me to come this side. They used to ask me to come to Turkey all the time, so I knew that when I finally arrived, they would be waiting at the airport. The day I arrived, they gave me a big welcome and even followed our car from the airport to the training centre. It was crazy – they were driving alongside our car, and it looked almost like a wedding because there was a massive convoy. They were even hanging outside their car windows – it was unbelievable.
This happened immediately after you landed?
Yes. I knew the club fans were expecting me because they were very excited. They used to check what was going on in terms of developments and if I was still coming or not. That’s how they created the hype.
This move to Europe happened very late in your career though ...
I feel great my man, it’s a blessing. It’s a dream come true and I’m just grateful my dream has finally been realised. What I appreciate the most is that there was respect shown in this move, in a sense that the club valued me. They showed respect to Kaizer Chiefs, as they wanted me and were willing to sign me immediately without a trial, and there was a transfer [fee] as well. So it was a big deal. It showed they were serious. At times [business manager] Jazzman [Mahlakgane] would be on his phone at 1am, making conference calls and talking to them. I think Jazzman deserves a lot of credit for pulling this one off. He really deserves it, having pulled off something so great for one of his players.
When your move to Europe didn’t happen after the 2010 World Cup, did you ever expect an opportunity like this would ever come up again in your career?
After the 2010 World Cup I was excited, positive and hopeful that a move to Europe would definitely happen because there were plenty of offers. I remember one time
myself and Itumeleng Khune were doing a photoshoot in Sandton and we bumped into then Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger. We had a good chat with him, he complemented us about the great tournament and the goal I scored against Mexico and wished me well. He told me that he believed there was interest from Paris Saint-Germain in France, saying it was a good club. There was another offer from Turkey and many others too, but nothing happened in the end. I was disappointed, but I didn’t blame anyone, and just carried on playing while remaining focused on my job. In 2011 I went to Nottingham Forest in England and had a good trial there. Everyone at the club knew who I was and the players were happy to see me. After one training session they were already asking if I was signing. After my second training session, three or four players wanted to give me a lift to my hotel. It showed how much they wanted me, but again nothing happened there.
Were you disappointed that nothing happened?
Yes, I was disappointed, but on the other hand I was happy because I was still playing for a big team like Kaizer Chiefs – it’s not as if I was club-less. I was playing for a team that appreciated me and I was part of the national team. That did not break me. I went to Crystal Palace and the same thing happened, and even Kagisho [Dikgacoi] who was there at the time can attest to the fact that I had a good trial. I was told the coach wanted me, but the budget was tight. I was then asked if I was keen to sign a pre-contract for X-amount because it was January and I had six months left on my contract with Chiefs. I had a choice to make, but I decided I could not betray Chiefs. I told Crystal Palace that if they seriously wanted me, they should talk to Chiefs and pay a fee, and then I would join. I couldn’t sign a pre-contract behind Chiefs’ back. I went back home, and I had a chat with the chairman [Kaizer Motaung] and I renewed my contract with Chiefs.
After those deals fell through, how did you motivate yourself to keep going?
I prayed and worked hard. I’m a believer and I visualise things. My faith kept me going. I came to a point in my life and career where I felt it would be great if it happened, but if it didn’t, I would still be happy. I would still be at Chiefs. I would still be grateful that God gave an opportunity to do what I love and empower people through my talent.
What is the most challenging thing about playing for the same club for 12 years?
It’s not easy. People think when you stay at one club for a long time you are guaranteed a place, but that is not the case. In my 12 years at Kaizer Chiefs I worked with about four to five different coaches and I was always professional and gave my best at training. I knew I was a top player at the club and if I didn’t work hard, it would have been disrespectful to those who looked up to me. In training and even in friendly games I had to do my best. I never missed training at Chiefs or Free State Stars, except for when I had a bad injury or we were given a day off. It was never because I was tired or I over-slept, never. I was always there.
Were you scared you would lose your place in the team if you didn’t pull your weight?
To be frank with you, I know this career can make or break you. Today you can be a superstar and tomorrow a statistic, hence I was always at my best. I wanted the club to bring in quality players so that there was always competition and I could up my game. I’m proud to say that whenever things were going well or not going well, I was the first to go and speak to Bobby [Motaung] and ask him, ‘Hey boss, what do you think about that player from that club? Don’t you think he can help us?’ I did that with the likes of Tsepo Masilela, Bernard Parker and Morgan Gould, and some who shared the same position as me. I wouldn’t just ask Bobby to sign defenders and goalkeepers because they were not playing in the same position as me. I even spoke to him and Jazzman about [Siphelele] Ntshangase coming to Chiefs when he was still at Black Leopards. I told Jazzman that this boy had to come to Chiefs, and he did. There are lots of players playing for Chiefs because I pushed and saw their potential of adding value to the club.
You were also good friends with Reneilwe Letsholonyane. How tough was it when he joined SuperSport United?
Myself and “Yeye” have come a long way; I think in 2002 we played at the KwaMahlobo Games when he was at PJ Stars, and that is where I met him. He was the best player
in his team and I was the best player in my team. When I later joined Free State Stars, he went to Jomo Cosmos and later on we went to Chiefs. We had a great combination, and became good friends. Even now we are still best friends and business partners. I was sad to see him leave for SuperSport, but I respected his decision and supported him as a friend and a brother. But I want him to come back to Chiefs. That’s his home. He left the club on good terms and the club gave him their blessing, so he is still one of us.
During the period with Stuart Baxter, what made Chiefs so successful compared to now?
Before Stuart’s arrival, we were struggling a bit. When he came, that’s when guys like Erick Mathoho joined, and Tsepo and Tefu Mashamaite stepped up. Baxter brought about a certain structure and identity, and whenever we played, you could see that a team was playing. His structure and principles were there, and we had to just add our own individual brilliance to help the team. That is how we were successful and won lots of trophies.
What is your best moment with Kaizer Chiefs?
I have so many great moments. It was always my dream to join Kaizer Chiefs, and I could have joined them the first time I suffered relegation with Free State Stars as Bobby kept calling me. But at that time I felt I was not ready, so I went down with Stars to the NFD instead. After the first half of that season, I had a meeting with the chairman of Free State Stars [Mike Mokoena] and he thanked me for my contribution and told me it was time I went to a bigger team in Joburg. I actually could have joined Bidvest Wits – I went there for a meeting with Jazzman, but I wanted to go to Chiefs. The meeting didn’t go well, and Jazzman called Stars to tell them we couldn’t agree personal terms with Wits. But later that day Jazzman told me that Mokoena had agreed a deal with Chiefs, and I was so happy because that is what I wanted – whether Chiefs gave me R1 000 or R5 000, I was just happy to be going there. We went to Naturena, and they showed me the contract and I was happy. That was in the morning, but I didn’t sign immediately because I wanted to speak to my parents first. Both of them were Pirates supporters, but after speaking to them, they gave me their blessing. I went back to Chiefs in the afternoon, signed the deal and I was happy to be a Khosi. That was the highlight. And, of course, winning trophies and personal accolades, and reaching so many milestones.
What was the lowest point?
The day after I signed for the club, I had a medical and that is when they discovered that my knee was not okay and it required an operation. That was a shock to me because I’d never had an operation before and there I was, going under the knife. I was devastated and scared that Chiefs was going to terminate my contract before I even started playing. Bobby was there and told me not to worry. It was stressful and I thought it would never heal, but he was very supportive. I would go to training for treatment and Bobby would watch the session and then come to the medical room afterwards. It took about six months before I started playing.
You didn’t win any trophies in your last three seasons with the club. Does that bother you, or are you satisfied with what you’ve won overall with Chiefs?
It does bother me. Life is about moments and memories. Playing for Chiefs is about winning things and when you do, that is when you create those moments and memories. That’s how I want to be remembered. When coach Steve Komphela was made the
victim, that was a very low moment for me. Whenever the team was not doing well, Steve was always the victim. We went three seasons without winning anything and he was always painted as the victim which was unfair. Some of us tried to defend him, but it was still not enough.
Following your move to Turkey, what lies ahead for you?
It’s a new chapter in my life – there’s a new script I need to write. I hope to write a good one; I hope to touch lives, inspire, make a difference and add value to the club. I will give my best all the time. That is how I want to make an impact. Already I have touched lives. Landing in Erzurum and being welcomed by so many supporters was good. I also haven’t closed the chapter of playing for the national team. Last year I got a call-up after three or four years, so I’m not going to force it. I will only return when I deserve to be there, so for now I will give my support to whoever has been given an opportunity.
Shabba, thanks a lot for your time and good luck with your new venture. Any last message for the Kaizer Chiefs supporters?
I want to thank them for the love, support and the noise they made whenever I was on the ball, the confidence they gave me and all the memories. To all those who bought the club replica jersey with the number 14, I’m truly grateful. I know at times I was criticised, but I did not take it personally. It’s part of football, it’s part of the journey – there will always be obstacles. I’m just grateful for their support. After I left and read some of the tributes, I got really emotional and teary-eyed. It made me realise how blessed and loved I am, not only by Chiefs fans, but many fans across South Africa. It showed me that I belong to the people. My purpose in life is to serve the people and be their servant.