Le­bo­hang Mokoena

Kick Off - - INSIDE -

The for­mer Or­lando Pi­rates mid­fielder is still go­ing strong as he re­veals un­known sto­ries from his il­lus­tri­ous ca­reer.

From mak­ing his PSL de­but as a 17-year-old way back in 2003, Le­bo­hang Mokoena has now spent half of his life play­ing pro­fes­sional foot­ball, mostly at Or­lando Pi­rates and Mamelodi Sun­downs. Since play­ing for Bafana Bafana as a teenager, he has skid­ded off the road, got bruised, writ­ten off, felt marginalis­ed and en­dured the agony of los­ing out on moves to De­portivo La Coruna, Ben­fica, Stras­bourg and Al Ahly. For those that have watched Moroka Swal­lows in the GladAfrica Cham­pi­onship this sea­son, he shows no signs of slow­ing down. Mokoena spoke to KICK OFF’s Love­more Moyo.

KICK OFF: What goes through your mind when you think about your longevity in the game? Le­bo­hang Mokoena:

It is by the Grace of God that I have been able to con­tinue do­ing what I love up to now. I be­lieve that it is some­thing that I was born to do. The guid­ance from my par­ents can never be un­der­stated be­cause fam­ily back­ground lays the foun­da­tion to­wards self-dis­ci­pline and pre­par­ing for the fu­ture. Most play­ers tend to think they are now the head of the house just be­cause they are earn­ing a salary and that is be­cause they don’t have a strong fam­ily back­bone. If your par­ents are still alive you will re­main a child, even if you were to earn R5-mil­lion. You need to abide by the prin­ci­ples that have been set in the fam­ily be­cause if that is not cor­rect then that is where you find peo­ple los­ing di­rec­tion in their ca­reers and life in gen­eral. I grew up in a house where my Mom and Dad were very strict, so I learnt a lot from both par­ents up un­til I lost my mother.

In as much as boys we will al­ways have prob­lems with our Dads, over the years I have learnt how to fix things. Fam­ily usu­ally breaks after you lose your Mom, but I have had to learn and grow up to be a man that I am now with­out al­ways be­ing emo­tional.

So much has been said about how long you have been in the game, but fact is that you are still only 33 ...

It is hard for peo­ple to be­lieve be­cause I started play­ing pro­fes­sion­ally at a very young age. At 17 I made my first ap­pear­ance and have been play­ing ever since. When I got to the first team it was a dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tion play­ing so I was sur­rounded by leg­ends and that re­ally helped me a lot in get­ting to learn about the game. Those are mem­o­ries that I will never for­get be­cause these are the same play­ers whose pic­tures I had stuck up in my room and never thought that one day I will be in the same chang­e­room as [ Wil­liams] Ok­para or [Steve] Lekoe­lea. For­tu­nately enough it was com­ple­mented by me fit­ting into the team. My hum­ble­ness in giv­ing them the re­spect and show­ing them that I need their help in learn­ing set me up for this path.

You trained with the first team in 2002/03 when Pi­rates won the league un­der Roy Bar­reto, be­fore go­ing on to make your de­but the fol­low­ing sea­son…

That was the time when I had the op­por­tu­nity of join­ing De­portivo La Coruna [in Spain’s LaLiga] after they spot­ted me play­ing in a tour­na­ment in France for Jomo Cos­mos, who took in­vi­ta­tional play­ers with him like me, Robyn Johannes, Bongi Ma­cala and Phasha [Sibu­siso Hadebe], who were all at Univer­sity of Pre­to­ria. That was when

Killer [Katlego Mphela] went to Stras­bourg. De­portivo wanted me to leave Pi­rates on the spot but at that time I had not signed a pro­fes­sional con­tract yet. When I came back, I was of­fered a first team con­tract and the chair­man [Irvin Khoza] told me that be­fore I go over­seas I need to start here first and build my brand, then in years to come I will then leave.

Did you re­alise how much of an op­por­tu­nity be­ing wanted by a Span­ish LaLiga team was?

[Laugh­ing] At that age all you care about is bet­ter­ing your skills. I could feel that there was some­thing dif­fer­ent about Europe com­pared to what we had back home, and I felt the urge to play there. When Bra J [Jomo Sono] was told about De­portivo, there was noth­ing he could do be­cause I was a Pi­rates player, so he re­ferred them to Pi­rates. That was the last I heard of it, plus I never fol­lowed it up be­cause my mind also changed when I started play­ing in the first team. Maybe it was not meant to be be­cause all my deals to De­portivo, Al Ahly, Aux­erre, Stras­bourg and Ben­fica never hap­pened. Ben­fica showed in­ter­ested in me after I played

for Bafana Bafana against Mex­ico at the [2005] CONCAFAF Gold Cup, but noth­ing hap­pened in the end be­cause Pi­rates re­quested that I re­turn early from the tour­na­ment to come and play in the Vo­da­com Chal­lenge. That broke my heart, but I have had to let go in­stead of hold­ing onto the dis­ap­point­ment. I am grate­ful I trav­elled the world and played against [Karim] Ben­zema and [ Tom] Hud­dle­stone at the Toulon tour­na­ment in France in the same squad that had Gift Leremi, Junior Khanye and Senzo [Meyiwa].

You were also one of the best play­ers in the na­tional Un­der-17 squad that was coached by Boe­bie Wil­liams…

Oh yes! If you only knew how many years I have been look­ing for that man. He is the one who broke the ice for me by tak­ing me into the squad at the age of 15 for the COSAFA Un­der-17 Cham­pi­onships [in 2001]. That man was a su­per coach with so much knowl­edge and calm as well. His favourite play­ers were Cheese­man Mkhize, Boy-Boy Mosia, [Mhabuthang­eni] Ce­bekhulu, and to­day you have Lee Langeveldt and Nazeer Al­lie also still play­ing. Our team had Daine Klate, Ro­mano Scott, Gra­ham King and Buti Sit­hole. Those were the best mem­o­ries and that is why I have kept all the pic­tures from back then.

Why is it that you played your best foot­ball un­der Kosta Papic in 2004/05 in a team that is still cel­e­brated de­spite winning noth­ing?

We were robbed be­cause we played the best foot­ball and got some award for it but not the league ti­tle. It was heart-break­ing that our best couldn’t win us the league. Those were the best mo­ments of my ca­reer be­cause after that I got into the na­tional team un­der Stu­art Bax­ter. For two sea­sons we came very close to winning the league.

You were the youngest mem­ber of that Pi­rates squad and re­main the only one still play­ing pro­fes­sional foot­ball …

[Laugh­ing] I even re­mem­ber play­ing in Doc­tor Khu­malo’s ben­e­fit game [in Bloem­fontein in 2004] be­cause I ad­mired him.

I have al­ways loved his foot­ball. That was the day he gave Tso [Bene­dict Vi­lakazi] a nut­meg and after the game Doc said to him, ‘to­day ev­ery­one saw who the real num­ber 15 is’. After that Tso started us­ing num­ber 5 in­stead of 15.

You seem to be en­joy­ing your foot­ball yet again after sev­eral years of bat­tling to play reg­u­larly. What has hap­pened this sea­son?

A brand-new vibe, sce­nario and chal­lenge. After hav­ing been in the PSL for so long maybe you start feel­ing too com­fort­able and re­lax­ing. I think it goes with luck and whether the per­son in charge [coach] be­lieves in you enough to make you im­prove. None of that was hap­pen­ing with me in the PSL and it then takes you to where you sit and think. When you ask ques­tions about why you are not play­ing you don’t get an­swers and the next thing they want you to start mis­be­hav­ing so that they have some­thing on you. It gives them am­mu­ni­tion to say, ‘this is the rea­son why you are not play­ing’. Then you will get one high tempo game after sit­ting out 15 and you will ob­vi­ously strug­gle. This is all a set up be­cause you are work­ing with peo­ple who have done psy­chol­ogy and know how to work with you as a player. That is what I have learnt, that this is how some peo­ple man­age to get what they want. You just need to con­tinue work­ing and wait for your chance. The pas­sion that I have for this game means I never quit on what I do. If I fail, I try again.

When did you last en­joy foot­ball this way?

When I won my first ti­tle at Sun­downs as we went un­beaten to­wards the end of the 2013/14 sea­son. I had been put for so long that I was so hun­gry to play, want­ing to grab my chance when I got it. For­tu­nately enough, the coach [Pitso Mosi­mane] gave me the chance, along with guys like Sur­prise [Moriri], [An­thony] Laf­for and [Elias] Pelembe, and en­cour­aged us to go for it. With the ex­pe­ri­ence that we all had we man­aged to carry the coach’s ideas on to the field. At Pi­rates un­der Papic it was good as well, though we had to play against teams like Black Leop­ards, who came with eight de­fend­ers to El­lis Park. There is a game we played against Sun­downs that year when we ran so much that even their pres­i­dent [Pa­trice] Mot­sepe came into our dress­ing room after the match to con­grat­u­late us about the foot­ball we were play­ing. Es­rom Nyan­doro al­ways spoke about that game when I got to Sun­downs.

For all the years you spent at Pi­rates, your last sea­son in 2008/09 was your worst as you didn’t start a sin­gle match out of the six ap­pear­ances you made…

There were in­ter­nal fights on the field of play with de­vel­op­ment play­ers heav­ily crit­i­cised and we were slowly be­ing pushed out. There was talk that we are not achiev­ing any­thing and were not fo­cused. It all got worse when I was told that I wasn’t do­ing a nor­mal run­ning drill cor­rectly and next thing, the coach [Rudi Krol] told me that I have to go to the of­fice be­cause I am not do­ing what he is ask­ing me to do. I left the field cry­ing be­cause I did not know what I did wrong. I was told that I can only come back to train­ing once I have spo­ken to Floyd Mbele at the of­fice, but I told them that I can­not speak to Floyd be­cause the chair­man is my father and I am here be­cause of him. He had done ev­ery­thing for me. I asked why I need to go to an­other per­son when there is a prob­lem. The chair­man was away for a long time so I said I will wait for him to come back so that I can speak to him. When that is­sue arose, there was now so many peo­ple be­tween my talks with the chair­man. I wouldn’t have known how my mes­sage gets to him. Since then things were just sour for me and I had to train be­hind the goals with the likes of Joseph Makhanya when other guys played 11 ver­sus 11. On cer­tain ex­er­cises we were brushed aside and told to kick the ball out­side, and it re­ally hurt to be stand­ing on the side­lines like you don’t ex­ist. Even­tu­ally I had to leave and luck­ily Har­ris Chueu [at Sun­downs] al­ready knew about me after we worked to­gether un­der Bar­reto.

Has play­ing in the sec­ond-tier for the past two years felt like a down­grade?

Not at all. No ways. If it was a down­grade, then I would have stopped the mo­ment High­lands Park coach Owen da Gama said they don’t have a bud­get to sign me, de­spite want­ing me. I then spoke to Mac­cabi FC and they signed me on the spot, and I was never wor­ried about where I was play­ing. I mean, I left Sun­downs de­spite still hav­ing an op­tion of stay­ing be­cause I wanted to con­tinue play­ing in­stead of just want­ing the bank bal­ance to bulge.

Be­ing some­one who knows so many play­ers that are now re­tired, what kind of thoughts are you hav­ing for when you stop play­ing foot­ball your­self?

I have no fear at all. As some­one with kids and a wife, it is about know­ing what you are go­ing to be do­ing when you are done play­ing foot­ball. I al­ready have things that I am do­ing known to some peo­ple which I can­not dis­close, but they do help me. For some peo­ple we are not meant to work for some­one else and that means we must start some­where. What­ever I am do­ing is all for my kids and gone are the days when Cheese is buying him­self a [Mercedes Benz] C63 and a shoe for R8,000. I don’t want to leave my kids suf­fer­ing. Re­mem­ber for us black guys there is black tax so what we earn is al­ways less than what it is imag­ined to be, es­pe­cially as a foot­baller.

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