Local football fans are excited about Knowledge Musona's imminent move to German club TSG Hoffenheim, but there are reasons to be worried.
Local football fans are excited about Knowledge Musona’s imminent move to German club TSG Hoffenheim, but there are reasons to be worried.
The Zimbabwean prodigy could yet be another local star player who shone in the Premier Soccer League (PSL) before dying out after exposure to Europe’s brighter lights.
Before going into detail about the many South African players who went to Europe and failed, there are reasons to be optimistic about Musona’s European expedition.
If he makes the grade at Hoffeinheim, it won’t be easy to ignore the parallels between the player and the club. It’s a perfect union of two novices. In the fifth division in the year 2000, Hoffenheim have been in the Bundesliga since 2008. In their debut season in Germany’s premier division, they won the “Herbstmeister” (autumn champions), leading many fans and neutrals to think the club would win the Bundesliga, but they imploded because of injuries to key players and finished seventh.
Likewise, when Musona arrived at Kaizer Chiefs from Zimbabwe he struggled to make his way into Vladimir Vermezovic’s team until a year later. He shone in the first half of the season, but wilted in the second half because of the heat of the PSL. Musona brings to mind another foreign star, the Zambian Collins Mbesuma, who also played for Kaizer Chiefs. Using his wrestler’s physique, Mbesuma bulldozed through many defences in 2005, exploits that secured him a move to English Premier League side Portsmouth. He never started a match for the then English premiership team for whom he appeared as a substitute only four times.
Other players have fared just as badly. Kagisho Dikgacoi was signed by Fulham a few years ago. He played just once for the London-based team and the former manager, Mark Hughes, didn’t like the little he saw. He sent the player on loan to lower-division side Crystal Palace, which subsequently signed him earlier this month.
Defender Bongani Khumalo went to join Tottenham Hotspur earlier this year. After failing to settle in the first few months, the team dispatched him on loan to Preston North End—an English team in the third tier. Now he has been sent out on a year-long loan to Reading, in the English second tier.
If Khumalo fails to make the grade at the north London club, he won’t be the first South African to disappoint. Defender Mbulelo “OJ” Mabizela played only nine times for the side in a career that was stained by ill discipline, including missing training sessions and alcohol abuse.
Even though his wonder goal against Leicester is included in a compilation of Spurs’ best 100 goals, the club decided he was too much trouble, releasing him after just a year.
His career at Spurs didn’t show the promise he exhibited when his peers nicknamed him OJ (Old John) for his maturity and studied poise.
Then there is SuperSport defender Jeffrey Ntuka and Masilo Modubi. Both players were once on Chelsea’s books (they never played for the first team). Modubi has just been “released” after spending years at Belgian side KVC Westerlo.
Striker Bernard Parker, whose indifferent stint at Dutch club FC Twente includes a loan at Greek club Panserraikos. Parker has now been signed by Chiefs to replace Musona.
The list of failures is a long one and includes Katlego Mpela (on trial at Glasgow Rangers) whose anonymous spell at Strasbourg contradicts his current incarnation at Mamelodi Sundowns. Not even midfielder Benedict “Tso” Vilakazi is an exception. His buccaneering role at Orlando Pirates in 2007 helped him secure a move to Danish side Aalborg BK, where he played a few games before returning to join Sundowns.
All this invites the question: What is wrong with our players?
The Mail & Guardian asked Mike Makaab - South Africa’s first Fifa-accredited agent and a former Orlando Pirates coach—why our players struggle to make it in Europe’s competitive leagues. Makaab explained that some players play very well around players they know and who know them.
The point he’s making, I guess, is that after playing together for some time a certain chemistry develops between, say, a midfielder and a striker, which countless coaching drills can never quite teach. A midfielder knows the precise moment to release the ball as he’s attuned to the striker’s movements off the ball. Herded on to a field together with strange teammates, the player will struggle.
It’s not a coincidence that some of the country’s best exports (Steven Pienaar and Aaron Mokoena) went to Europe as teenagers. If a player goes to Europe when he’s younger, the chances of success are relatively higher. Makaab concurred, explaining: “When you are younger, they will give you a chance. If you are 18, they know you will be with them for a long time and they will train you. But if you go there as a 28-year-old, they expect you to know how to play.”
If Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger hadn’t rescued the recently retired Manchester City midfielder Patrick Vieira, perhaps the player would have rotted in AC Milan’s reserves. In his book, rather unimaginatively titled My Autobiography, Vieira complained about being lonely, homesick and not getting game time in Milan. To soothe their depression, some players resort to comfort food and alcohol.
“Some players will drink themselves out of their careers,” Makaab said. He could have added that some players eat themselves out of a career and Benni McCarthy’s case is instructive. After being repeatedly told to shape up, McCarthy was eventually released by West Ham. As McCarthy was making his way out of West Ham’s home, R14-million richer, a club executive quipped that the player was a “big fat mistake”.
The M&G also spoke to Moses Chunga, a title-winning coach at Zimbabwe premiership side Gunners. The coach—admired in Zimbabwe for giving opportunities to young players—first became popular in the 1980s as a midfielder who could also score goals. In his last season in Zimbabwe he scored 45 goals before settling at Eendracht Aalst, then a Belgian second-tier side.
Chunga said a player who goes to Europe has to “adjust to the weather, language and culture, make new friends and not think too much about home”. Racism and other forms of discrimination compound the difficulties, Chunga said. “The opposition also make it hard for you and may call you a baboon,” he said.
Chunga said European clubs now make it easier for a player to settle. Some clubs in Europe, for instance, may ask a prodigy’s parents to relocate with him so that he settles quickly. Lionel Messi moved to Barcelona with his parents when he was in his early teens; so did Manchester United’s Federico Macheda. If you are a 15-year-old star a club might suggest this option to help a player settle but how does a side get a 23-year-old to move with his parents?
Vieira wrote that his mother visited him occasionally but it was Wenger who rescued him by taking him to Highbury, Arsenal’s old stadium, an institution that gives opportunities to young players.
I feel that Hoffenheim, a young, small and ambitious club, might suit Musona.
Still, my fingers remain crossed. Oh, and someone should pack Vieira’s autobiography into Musona’s luggage so that the 21-year-old star learns how the Arsenal legend did it.