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  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.