Once notorious for off-field antics, Lerato Chabangu is back with a vengeance and swimming bravely upstream.
Back in the grand old days of Garrincha and George Best, there was a place reserved for the hedonist at football's top table. A proper maestro was almost obliged to maintain a personal vortex of booze, groupies, drugs, gambling and more. Garrincha even had a torrid fling with a goat.
That approach no longer works, as the likes of Adriano and Jabu Mahlangu have discovered to their cost in recent years, along with countless other notable talents who have travelled nowhere fast on the tide of addiction.
But Moroka Swallows midfielder Lerato Chabangu is swimming bravely upstream. Less than two years ago, he was jobless, broke and desperate, a notorious tavernologist unwanted by nearly every coach in the Premier Soccer League. The exception was Gordon Igesund, then in charge of the Dube Birds, who took a wild flutter on Chabangu, giving him a skeletal, pay-as-you-play contract.
The player's recovery has been so astonishing that a call-up to Igesund's Bafana squad for next year's Nations Cup is not inconceivable. "It would be an honour to wear the national jersey again," said Chabangu (27) after a training session in Dobsonville this week. "If I still have the legs to carry me, I can do the job."
He has the legs right now. Chabangu has attacked the new season with zeal, winning a man-of-the-match performance against Sundowns in the 3-3 draw in the first leg of their MTN8 semifinal. A whirl of perpetual motion, he contributed a goal-line clearance and a sweetly calibrated through-ball to Bennett Chenene for the third away goal.
During Sunday afternoon's second leg in Soweto, Chabangu will relish the chance to dissect his old club's rear guard, which looked wobbly in their midweek loss to Kaizer Chiefs.
New Birds coach Zeca Marques has no fear of overselling Chabangu's qualities. "He is a different class when it comes to football intelligence, reading the situation, with two-footednedess and composure on the ball," he said. "He is such a modern player. If you put him in a Barcelona or Spanish side, he would fit in."
Come to think of it, Chabangu once dazzled Barcelona in a Sundowns shirt, winning the praise of Ronaldinho during a 2007 friendly defeat at Loftus Versfeld with a memorable exhibition of skill, audacity and pace. That was before the boozing got out of control. Soon he was arriving at training three sheets to the wind. Gavin Hunt took a flier on him, but it did not work out at SuperSport United. He returned to Sundowns, but played only two league games in his final season and, by the end of 2010, he was forgotten.
By all accounts, Birds staff have monitored Chabangu closely, while trying to respect his dignity and autonomy. During the recent PSL off-season, kit manager Junior Molefe made a point of popping over to Chabangu's house every few days to check that he was not relaxing too hard. The task of helping to keep the winger on the wagon (or close to it) is not written into Molefe's contract, but he does it gladly.
Chabangu had a rough upbringing on the mean streets of Tembisa on the East Rand and the decadent player culture at Sundowns did not help to settle his mind. But his skipper at Birds, the relentlessly disciplined Lefa Tsutsulupa, has no time for the notion that anybody's past necessarily determines his future.
"It has to do with personal choice," said Tsutsulupa. "It's not about how you grew up. These are decisions that you make as a person. No excuses.
Moonshine and roses
"It has been a process, not one breakthrough moment," he said. "We keep telling him how important he is to the club and what a difference he can make when he is on song.
"At Swallows, the environment is conducive. Everything around him is positive and allows him to think about the future, not just about the present. We are beginning to see a new generation of players who are citizens, who contribute to their community."
"It hasn't all been moonshine and roses," said Swallows' managing director Leon Prins. "There was a dubious patch last season. But I'm really happy for the boy. He stuck it out and now we've taken a risk and given him a decent long-term contract. It's not gazillions, but it's a deal that respects his ability."
All the Birds need on Sunday is a draw, having plundered three away goals in Atteridgeville. But they will not be parking any buses. With a platoon of snazzy attackers in Chabangu, Siyabonga Nomvethe, Chenene and Joseph Makhanya, all relishing their career revivals, Swallows do not have a negative setting. Expect some showbiz down in Dobsonville.
Tomorrow night's clash between Orlando Pirates and SuperSport United holds no such promise, on recent evidence. It is the third edition of the fixture in six days and the first two were crabby, goalless and charmless. Here is hoping both sets of players recall that their primary job description is not to kick each other in the bollocks. We deserve better.