The South African star has taken the Belgian second-tier by storm, yet a number of South Africans with experience in the European country share their concerns over the forward’s current situation.
After tormenting both the Seychelles and Nigerian defenders in recent African Nations Cup qualifiers, the question on every local supporter’s lips was: what is a super-talented and technically-gifted player like Percy Tau doing in the Belgium First Division? Is he not too good to be playing in that league? Zola Doda investigates.
Percy Tau is simply no ordinary player. Blessed with immaculate skill, deceptive pace and the ability to glide past defenders with ease, it took the silky forward just two seasons to take domestic football by storm.
During his short stint in the PSL, the 24-year-old won the league title, Nedbank Cup, CAF Champions League and CAF Super Cup with Mamelodi Sundowns and was named PSL Footballer of the Season last year, while also being recognised for his efforts on the continent after receiving a nomination for the 2018 CAF Player of the Year award. And when he joined English Premiership side Brighton and Hove Albion on a four-yearcontract at the beginning of the season, the move was hailed as one of the best-achieved by a PSL player in recent history. But due to strict work permit rules which prohibits players who have played less than 75 per cent of their national team’s matches over the last two years from playing in England’s top-flight, what was meant to be a dream move has turned out to be a somewhat anti-climax for Tau. Instead of rubbing shoulders with the giants of English football, Tau found himself farmed out to Royale Union Saint-Gilloise – a mid-table club in the Belgian second-tier.
“THE BELGIAN FIRST DIVISION IS NOT VERY COMPETITIVE, AND MOST PLAYERS ARE AVERAGE.”
Union Saint-Gilloise is owned by businessman Tony Bloom, the same owner of Brighton and Hove, who hopes the former Sundowns ace will help the club get promoted to the Belgian top-flight. And while the move is designed to help the club, it has done very little to help Tau’s progress, according to pundits. In the eight-team Belgium First Division, Tau’s statistics look mightily impressive as his goals and assists go viral almost every week on social media. But those who have watched the league closely believe the standard is well below the level of the Bafana Bafana international. “It’s a fact that Percy Tau is too good for that league, but there is nothing he can do about that because his parent club [Brighton] has a relationship with Union,” says Anele Ngongca, who spent nine years with KRC Genk in
the Belgian Jupiler Pro League. “The Belgium First Division is not the type of league I thought Percy would go to. I was expecting a club like Brighton to loan him to a top-flight club in Belgium or at least in France’s Ligue 1 where there are many scouts watching every week. He could have even gone to the Bundesliga in Germany. I have lots of friends playing in Belgium, and they all agree that the First Division is mainly for local young boys who are coming through the development ranks, and for players who want to develop. But for a player like Percy, it was really a shock for me when he went there.” Ngongca feels the level of football Tau is currently being exposed to will do little to help better-prepare him for his anticipated return to his Premier League mother club. “The Belgian First Division is not very competitive, and most players are average,” he says. “I was expecting to see Percy in the Pro League where Brighton would have had an opportunity to follow him properly and watch his games. Okay, they will get reports on how he is doing, which is normal, but if you want a player prepared for the EPL, do you think sending him to a second-tier club will help him? I don’t think so. The test is not the same. I think this move is complicated because from Brighton’s point of view, they expect him to help the club gain promotion to the Pro League.” Retired midfielder Lance Davids spent three years with Belgian side Lierse SK and shares the same sentiments as his former Bafana Bafana teammate. “It’s not a good league for a player like Percy Tau,” Davids starts. “Are they going to get promoted at the end of the season? They are doing well now, but it’s going to be tough come the end of the season because it’s a really, really tough and complicated way to get promoted. But no, it’s not a good league. It’s terrible football, and sometimes there are no people at the grounds. It’s like watching TS Galaxy playing against TS Sporting. It’s terrible, and is very different to the Belgium Pro League. It’s not technical, and most of the time they just play long balls. “The loan move has nothing to do with his potential because Percy is definitely a good player – he hit the ground running as soon as he started playing and is doing well. But is that league for Percy Tau’s talent? No, I don’t believe so.”
What went wrong?
Brighton reportedly paid Sundowns a staggering R50 million for Tau’s services. KICK OFF understands that after signing for the English Premier League outfit, the South African had offers on the table to join clubs in both Netherlands and the Belgium top-flight on loan, but his parent club refused, opting to send him to second-tier Union Saint-Gilloise. With Tau’s business manager Mmatsatsi Sefalafala unavailable to shed light on the matter, Thulani Thuswa – media officer at Tau’s previous club Sundowns – says there was nothing The Brazilians could do from their side. “We sold Percy and what happened after that was out of our control,” Thuswa says. “But look, we know that Percy is a good player and it doesn’t matter which team he plays for – he will always be a great player. When we sold him, we had no doubt in our minds that he was going to outgrow the place where he was going in the same way he outgrew the PSL. A lot of people speak highly of him, including former Senegal striker El Hadji Diouf. Only time will tell where he will go next, but he has a good head on his shoulders.” In similar fashion to Tau, a then tender 18-year-old Masilo Modubi, alongside the late Jeffery Ntuka and Simphiwe Mosia, was signed by English Premiership giants Chelsea in 2003. The trio were then sent out on loan to Belgium Pro League side Westerlo, where Modubi played for eight years while being constantly monitored by Chelsea. While neither managed to get registered in the EPL, the South African trio enjoyed memorable careers in Belgium, yet Modubi believes the circumstances are now different. “I was also loaned from Chelsea to Westerlo because the truth is, it’s up to the parent club to decide where they want to loan you,” explains Modubi. “For us it was more about getting the European passport more than playing experience. We didn’t have the required Bafana Bafana caps to move to England and we were still very young at that time. I’m sure by the end of this season Percy will qualify for a UK work permit because he plays every Bafana game. “But talking about the league itself, the First Division in Belgium is very competitive physically, but I have my own doubts about it because there are few teams there that can compete. Honestly, it’s not up to Percy Tau’s standards because we are talking about someone who was the PSL Player of the Season. In my opinion, they could have loaned him out elsewhere. I know that Union works with Brighton, but for his development, it would have been nice to see him competing in other big leagues. I saw Andile Jali in his first six months in Belgium – he initially
“THE ONLY THING THAT WILL MAKE HIM SUCCESSFUL IS HIS WILLINGNESS TO LEARN.”
“HE IS LEARNING EUROPEAN FOOTBALL, AND HAS NOW HAD A TASTE OF EUROPEAN FOOTBALL.”
struggled to adjust because he was in a tougher league, but after that he was untouchable. Tau just arrived, and everything went up. Percy is a good player and has adjusted well, but knowing the standard of the second-tier, it’s not at his level.”
Signs of improvement
With Tau excelling at his lower league club, it is evidently clear that the player has proven himself to be a good signing while simultaneously raising his game. At previous club Sundowns, Tau was mostly focussed on attacking and showing his dribbling wizardly, yet his defensive ability and tactical awareness has improved vastly since moving to Belgium, according to former teammate Ngongca. “On a positive side, he has improved a lot because I have watched a couple of matches he has played for Bafana Bafana,” Ngongca notes. “You can see since he is now playing in Europe, his mentality has changed. At Sundowns he used to track back very little to help out in defence, but now that he is playing in Europe, he does that a little bit more than before. He also now knows when and where to dribble, and doesn’t hang on the ball too much like he did when he was playing in the PSL. The only thing that will make him successful is his willingness to learn. He takes his job very seriously, and would always stay behind after sessions to do extra training. “Kevin de Bryne was the same when he was a youngster at Genk – he would stay behind and practise a lot. We can only hope he will get his dream move to the EPL. Steven Pienaar is the last South African to achieve. But if the move doesn’t happen next season, hopefully Brighton will loan him out to a bigger club. He shouldn’t stay there for another season because that will not take him anywhere. But Brighton has the last say. I would like to see Percy in France’s Ligue 1 because that is his level. They are fast, and Percy has a football brain.” Davids adds that the taste of European football, even though not at the highest level, will make a difference in Tau’s performance. “Percy is doing well from the few matches I have watched,” he says. “I managed to watch his first match as well, and his technical ability and speed were good. Tactically he still needs to improve because that comes over a period of time, and he is still getting to know his team. At Sundowns he had a free role where he could do whatever he wanted to do and that was important. Now he is in Europe where it’s different, but his mentality and attitude is good. He is learning European football, and has now had a taste of European football.” Whether Tau will even return to England, let alone make an impact, remains to be seen. For now though, the South African star will look to keep plugging away in the hope of guiding both his team and himself to a higher level next season.