The former Kaizer Chiefs star has new targets to reach after switching to rivals Mamelodi Sundowns
George Lebese has struggled to live up to his potential over the past nine years, but a change of scenery opens a new avenue for the midfielder after he recently joined African champions Mamelodi Sundowns from Kaizer Chiefs. KICK OFF’s Chad Klate unpacks the new Brazilian’s thoughts.
For many years, Lebese was tipped to become one of South Africa’s best wingers, but inconsistency has been his biggest stubling block. In an exclusive interview with KICK OFF Magazine (Issue 466) in February 2016, the 28-year-old counted himself amongst the best in the country after getting the 2015/16 season off to a flyer, netting eight goals in 21 appearances in all competitions, before a groin injury in the second half of the campaign hampered his rich vein of form. “A lot of factors came in: my momentum was obviously taken away by injuries which was unfortunate, but it was also very difficult for me to get back into the team when they were doing well,” he answers when asked what happened after his last KICK OFF interview. “Considering other players were doing well in my position, I had to wait for my chance and that also made me lose momentum, so it went from bad to worse from there.” The following season, Lebese struggled to gain any momentum as he was limited to just 15 starts in all competitions as Steve Komphela’s outfit saw out a second successive disappointing season, ultimately prompting his decision to change allegiances and join the Tshwane giants. Now at a club with expectations as high as his own, the Mamelodi-born attacker is back home and is confident he made the right decision to be in direct competition with some of the best players in the Premier Soccer League. “The best players are here and I feel I can be counted amongst them, so why not join a team with great players?” questions Lebese. “Obviously I have competition but, having been on the other side [at Chiefs] for long, I thought this was a good opportunity for me to start a new life, a new challenge, with a great team and great coaches.”
The former Arcadia Shepherds left-winger had been linked with a return to his ‘hood’ on numerous occassions and the opportunity eventually came at a rather fortunate time, as Sundowns look to defend their CAF Champions League crown – something Lebese has had limited experience in while at Chiefs.
“THE BEST PLAYERS ARE HERE AND I FEEL I CAN BE COUNTED AMONGST THEM, SO WHY NOT JOIN A TEAM WITH GREAT PLAYERS?”
“I felt it was the right time to move because I had won everything they were competing in,” he explains. “When the opportunity to join the African champions came, I didn’t think twice because they are already involved in the Champions League now. Whether I would be part of the [registered] squad was also a consideration when I made the move. “But rumours have always been there. I was always associated with Sundowns because of obviously being a Mamelodi boy, so I was really humbled to first hear that they were interested in my services. Having also had a bad season last season, I thought it was the right time to move.” His battle for consistency is one that will continue to be cast in the spotlight, even more so now that there is greater expectancy from a no-nonsense coach in Pitso Mosimane, and supporters will expect him to hit the ground running. “The coach has told both Oupa [Manyisa] and myself that we came from big teams, so it’s not like we still need to get the experience – we already have big match tem mprement,”” he reveals. “We just have to get to know his philosophy and b uild relationships with the playe ers, and he’s going to put us in beca ause there’s no time to waste as wwe’re also looking to retain the Champ pions League title. “What the coach really stresses is that he doesn’t w want to complicate my game, he e just wants me to take it to anot her level. He believes in me so much, and he’s told me that, if I pe erform, I can make it back into the n ational team, so that’s what I’m fac ing – it’s big pressure and expectatio ons from the coach and the fans.” Mosimane stuck to his w ords as he threw Lebese, and Many yisa, on in their opening game of th he season – the MTN8 quarter- - final which they lost 1-0 to Maritzburg United – and, despite the disappointing outcome for the team, Lebese was taken aback by his reception from the fans at the Lucas Moripe Stadium. “I was humbled to hear the supporters singing my name after my first match; it was like a dream come true. I know I need to dream big, but this is one of my dreams – to represent my home team – and it’s finally happened. I felt it was bound to happen, and there’s no better time than now,” he says with a big grin.
Something that Lebese may have gotten away with at his former club was being able to leave training and enjoy his free time away from football. However, things at Chloorkop are vastly different. Training sessions are extended by daily video analysis sessions, while each player leaves training with homework assignments that entails self-analysis, opponent analysis and prototype analysis – watching an archetypal player. “The first time [getting homework] I was really confused
with what was going on, but the guys I’m close to in the team helped me by explaining how the Sundowns family does things, and what the coach’s expectations are,” says Lebese. “So I really am liking this, I just had to put more time in my game, not necessarily meaning I have to train more, but studying my game and the style of play the coach wants from me. I have a couple of videos already that I’m still looking at, in terms of how he wants me to play, so it’s an everyday thing. Even on a day off we have to look at something and do something that involves football,” he jokes. “But it’s been great so far, I’m enjoying myself. Everytime I finish training I just can’t wait to get back again the next day, to be with the guys and the technical staff. I’d say so far I’m at ease, and I’m just looking to perform.” ‘Geeza’, as he is affectionately known, feels perhaps the depth in the Sundowns squad could help him reach the level he has been craving, as the focus and pressure to deliver is not solely placed on him, but equally across every member of the team. “I think here we can share the load and, like I’ve said, there’s a lot of great players so I feel I can also rise to their level. When you’re surrounded by great players you also adopt that quality, so I’m hoping to kick on quickly. I’m just trying to get up to speed with the rest of the team,” he adds. “I need to stick to the principles of the team and what is required of me, and I need to always try to be a step ahead, taking into account my game, that of the team and the opponents. It’s one game at a time, and I know what’s required of me. I wouldn’t like to speak about the future and what I promise, but I’m a work in progress now, and I’m looking to get up to speed and produce as soon as possible.”
With just five international caps to his name, Lebese is dying to reconnect his Bafana Bafana ties and add to his tally. Having worked with coach Stuart Baxter before, and perhaps enjoying his best form under the Scotsman, it could open the door for his return, should he of course perform at his new club. “It starts here [at Sundowns]. It’s not only about Baxter – if I do well then he’ll obviously consider me, but even having worked with him I still need to put in a good showing and not pin my hopes on him calling me up just because he’s worked with me,” he says. “He’s not that type of coach – he focuses mostly on performance, and he wants the country to do well as a whole, so I think it starts with my work here, giving good performances at club level, so he can consider me.”
In June 2015 Lebese reportedly turned down a big-money offer from Turkey prior to signing a contract renewal at Chiefs, and despite moving ever closer to the age of 30, the midfielder feels the door is still open for a move to Europe at some point in the near future. “My main focus right now is just to cement my place in the Sundowns team – amongst these great players – and hopefully get back to the national team setup. It’s never too late though, for as long as I still breathe, I still hope that anything can happen, so I don’t write off a move abroad. “This is football and anything is possible; you see players moving less than three months after joining a new club, so I’m not writing it off. But, for now, my main focus is here at Sundowns, to really repay the coach for bringing me here,” he concludes.
“FOR AS LONG AS I STILL BREATHE, I STILL HOPE THAT ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN, SO I DON’T WRITE OFF A MOVE ABROAD.”