Ready for the next step
Teboho Mokoena says that when he looks at himself in the mirror, he sees the best midfielder in South Africa and tracking his development in the Premier Soccer League over the past five seasons, few could argue against that. Plucked out of the Harmony Academy by SuperSport United, the Bethlehem-born star developed from a promising teenager to one of the first names on the team sheet for Matsatsantsa and the new-look Bafana Bafana under Hugo Broos. KICK OFF’s Lorenz Köhler caught up with the 25-yearold to find out about his incredible rise to become a leader for club and country, and whether he’d consider joining a DStv Premiership rival should his dream overseas move not materialise.
KICK OFF: Teboho, it’s going on six years in the PSL since Stuart Baxter handed you a first-team debut in 2016. When you look back, did you envision what you have achieved in your career at this point or was the dream simply to turn professional and see what happens? Teboho Mokoena:
I honestly didn’t think I would have achieved what I have, but ever since I arrived at SuperSport, I thought I can make it big because I saw the quality that I have against the best players. At Harmony, I thought of being a PSL player, but also wanted to be a chartered accountant. I was good at maths and accounting but ever since I signed for SuperSport, that dream is gone.
Why did you join SuperSport United back then, what attracted you and how is it that they got both you and Sipho Mbule – someone you have developed a telepathic connection with on the field?
I would say it’s because I knew SuperSport has the best academy in South Africa and when they came and said they want me, I didn’t even think twice because I knew that the youth side of the club is very good. I also thought I could play with the best players because we played with the likes of Nelson Maluleka in the Champ of Champs [ Tournament] and he was the junior national team captain. So, it was an easy decision for me to take to come to SuperSport United. I saw the players they had and the quality of the players. They wanted me first and the following year they came for Sipho. We played together for a long time at Harmony.
Are you satisfied with the three senior trophies you’ve won so far, or do you feel that you should have achieved more at this stage of your career?
Obviously, I’m not. I want more trophies. I want to win the league; I think that’s the trophy I want locally – and in Africa [continental competitions] I think I need the Champions League.
SuperSport has a young team at the moment but is hoping to compete for silverware. What’s it like playing alongside Jesse Donn, Mbule and Luke Fleurs? Has that benefited you, as opposed to playing alongside the veterans like Dean Furman and Reneilwe Letsholonyane?
Yes, it’s benefited me because I’m more of the leader than I was before, I think I’ve played more games than them and been around for longer. So, I think it’s helped me, definitely, in terms of leadership qualities and guiding the boys. They don’t call me ‘Grootman’ though. Our captain is Ronwen Williams and vice-captain is Bradley Grobler. I can lead on the field but I don’t [necessarily] want the armband.
You’re a model professional, kids look up to you. You never appear in bad headlines but surely there’s been major obstacles in your career. What are they and how did you overcome them to be one of the leading players in South Africa?
One of my obstacles, eish, you know me and coaches is always a problem, hey. Me and my coach is always a problem, [Kaitano] Tembo is a very hard man. Very, very hard. He doesn’t take no s**t, that one. There’s a lot of things in life that stand in our way personally but I can’t really talk or open up about, that but my coach is a hard person. It was hard for me to deal with him before but now I’m used to it and I know what kind of a person he is. So, it took a while because I was struggling with his [management style]. In terms of personality and character, that’s improved under him. If you can work under him, it means you have a strong heart, he doesn’t like chickens. He likes men, if you are a chicken you won’t play under him.
Thamsanqa Gabuza has been one of the shining lights for SuperSport this season, how much of an impact has he made on the squad since his arrival from Orlando Pirates?
He’s scoring goals and holding up balls for us, working hard off the ball, so that’s his kind of mission. He’s a funny guy off the field, I think we all know he’s a funny guy.
You’ve started every game under new head coach Hugo Broos in the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers. How have you won his faith? Do you think you are now the best central midfielder in the PSL and the senior national team at 24?
How I won his faith in me? I don’t know my brother. I just do what I do best and the rest I give to God. I think whatever I was putting into training he was impressed with it, I don’t know. I’ve spoken to the coach, he told me I can make it overseas and I have the ability to play overseas – because I’ve asked him where I can work, what areas I need to improve on and he just told me one thing, and that’s to be ‘present’ in the game, that’s all and that’s what I’m working on right now. But do I think I’m the best midfielder? When I look at myself in the mirror, yes I am, but I don’t compare myself with anyone, I compete with myself only.
When you first made your debut for the national team under your former coach Stuart Baxter at the age of 21, the likes of Andile Jali and Bongani Zungu were ahead of you in the pecking order. What did you make of their quality when you trained beside them? Did you feel intimidated by any of the big names?
Nah, I didn’t see much of a difference,
“I CAN LEAD ON THE FIELD BUT I DON’T [NECESSARILY] WANT THE ARMBAND.”
even at that age. But the player who stood out for me was Kamohelo Mokotjo. Everything about him. His passing, interceptions, that guy, he works smart, not hard. He works smart, that’s what I like about him. He’s not aggressive, but he is aggressive? You know that type of player. He’s effective and that one I wouldn’t mind playing next to him. I can’t say why he was overlooked for so long. You know, in South Africa we don’t like simple players. We want players who run with the ball and dance on top of the ball, so yeah, for him it’s different.
The standard of 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers; you’ve played Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Ghana – how does it compare to what you experience in the PSL? What’s the difference?
It’s international level and you can tell immediately it’s a step up. It’s tough, tough my brother, you play for your life. Especially the games played against Ethiopia and also the challenges we faced as a team, that’s what makes you strong. We got there [Ethiopia] at 6am on the pre-match day, we just slept and the next day we played, so you can imagine the challenges of that game. It’s very hard to play at the internationali level because you don’t get much of a rest, you leave and then don’t work together for a while, you are just there for three or four days and you play, so it’s very tough. But that’s why I always say we need to play in CAF competitions to experience such stuff.
Do you think you are ready to play in Europe or for a bigger club in Africa? Is that something you would even consider, playing in North Africa for example?
Yes, I wouldn’t mind. I was born ready for a move to Europe. I just know [I am ready for the next level]. I know I’ve improved a lot and there are areas I’ve become better at, so I know I can do it and move to the next level. With the number of games and tournaments I’ve played, I realise I’m ready and can fit in [anywhere].
“HIS PASSING, INTERCEPTIONS, THAT GUY, HE WORKS SMART, NOT HARD. HE WORKS SMART.”
Kaizer Chiefs, Orlando Pirates, Mamelodi Sundowns make you an offer in January, SuperSport accepts the bid – what do you do as Teboho Mokoena?
I do nothing, I would stay at SuperSport because I want to be at SuperSport. If I left them, it would be to go overseas. This team has changed my life and I’m grateful for that. I don’t think I would have received the same opportunities elsewhere.
What do you think you need to improve in your game now and what would you like to achieve in the next 12 months?
I just want to score more goals and do better than last season. I want to win a trophy with the team. Regarding the Qatar 2022 World Cup, I don’t want to discuss that yet, we just need to be there, that’s the objective.
Last question before we let you go – where would you like to play should you get the opportunity to move abroad?
I would say Spain. They play with the ball on the grass my brother, that’s it!