SA's Ayanda Patosi wants to net the big one in Europe
So exactly how good is Ayanda Patosi? The jury will be out until he eventually makes his case in Bafana colours, possibly against Norway in January. But in the interim he has reached his own verdict: he's bound for the big time. His preferred long-term base is Germany or Spain and he will not be joining the wave of South African soccer players fleeing the hard knocks of Europe for the comforts of home.
"I can stay in Europe for 10 years," said the Lokeren attacking midfielder, with a conviction that suggests he has more than mere talent in his locker. "Of course, I miss home, but I'm strong enough. I'm here for my family. So why would I want to go home? I have that mentality. Let's say a team like Kaizer Chiefs offer to double my salary, but in a couple of years I could make three times that amount. That's why I'm not thinking about money yet."
Patosi met me at the railway station of Lokeren on the morning after a recent loss on penalties to local rivals Gent. He's a pleasant, garrulous youngster, still free of the robotic blandness that afflicts so many of his older colleagues. And the derby defeat had not dampened the spirits of a 20-year-old adventurer with a glowing future.
Unable to find a café open for breakfast, we wandered the town, which might be described as the Kroonstad of Belgium. This east Flanders dorp's coat of arms offers a clue to its pace of life: it is emblazoned with a turnip and a spade. Until recently, Lokeren's main economic activity was breeding rabbits. But the citizens are no plaasjapies (farm yokels) when it comes to football. They take it seriously – and they take Patosi seriously.
Consistently rated among the top three players in the Jupiler League this season, Patosi won fame beyond Belgian borders last month with a ripsnorter of a right-footed volley against Standard Liege that went viral on YouTube. Earlier, he smashed another belter against Charleroi with his left peg. A sharp-witted playmaker in the Thulani Serero mould, he has a Velcro first touch and a keen eye for an early through-ball.
"I like one or two touches," he said. "Play and move – it's the best way. If you watch Barcelona, it's only Messi who runs with the ball, or Iniesta sometimes. They always play and move, so they're always free."
During the derby, he spoke frequently to senior teammates whenever a move broke down; he believes in his own insight into the game.
Gavin Hunt believes the kid from Khayelitsha can outdo Steven Pienaar on the European stage. The SuperSport United coach tried to sign him last year from the Africa Sport Development academy in Cape Town, but was deterred by the asking price.
"We had him on trial and the first day I saw him I put him straight into the first team, and he looked like our best player," Hunt said this week. "Patosi is best used as a number 10, because he has great awareness.
"He's not really a South African player. He's a European kind of player, because he wants to play forward all the time. That's the mentality we need to have in this country."
Hunt concedes that the academy's price was vindicated when Lokeren snapped him up weeks later – and there is every prospect of a juicy sell-on cheque for the academy.
The sportswriter Sander de Graeve said Patosi was coveted by the richest Belgian sides – Anderlecht, Standard Liege and Club Brugge. "If he keeps progressing like he has in the last season and a half, I can see him playing in a bigger competition than Belgium. But I don't think he will join one of the biggest European clubs."
Belgium has lured a string of South African players in recent years. Its generous citizenship policy offers a European Union passport after five years' residency, thus easing their passage to the English Premiership and other lucrative divisions. The money is not amazing, though – the average player takes home R120 000 a month, less than the cheques banked by dozens of Premier Soccer League players.
Flashy dribbling skills
Calculating an average PSL wage is impossible because club finances are about as transparent as Table Mountain and agents say the deals vary wildly. Middleweight players at middleweight clubs usually gross R40 000 to R60 000 a month, but the Gauteng giants can fork out up to R400 000 a month for a Bafana star, excluding bonuses. Hence the lure of a PSL return for several players in their prime who have been enjoying respectable success in Europe, notably Siboniso Gaxa, Tsepo Masilela and Bevan Fransman. In his defence, Gaxa was probably too old, at 28, to move on to bigger things.
"I came here at the right age," said Patosi, "and so did Darren Keet. He is doing really well for Kortrijk, saving penalties every week."
Belgian football is enjoying a renaissance. The national side will be formidable at the next World Cup should they qualify, what with Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard, Marouane Fellaini, Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen in the ranks.
That said, many of the brightest Belgian prospects leave for Holland or France in their teens – and the domestic league is certifiably unsexy. Except for the big-four sides, crowd averages are less than 8 000 and most teams play in ramshackle grounds huddled in working-class neighbourhoods. Lokeren's ground is a ringer for the Bidvest Stadium.
In terms of the football itself, the technical standard is lower than in Holland and flashy dribbling skills are scarcer than in the PSL. But possession is treasured and protected much better than it is in South Africa. It is a culture that can only improve Patosi's game.
He hangs out with Genk's Anele Ngcongca when he gets a chance. He misses his girlfriend in Khayelitsha, his mother, Nombulelo, and also his brother, Luyanda. "He understands football better than my mother, but he still can't believe how quickly I've become one of the best players in Belgium."
Patosi's father died when he was 11. Since then, his father figure has been youth coach Cecil Ntlebi, who guided him through his apprenticeships at Mighty United, Vasco da Gama and the academy.
Lokeren refused to release him for next Saturday's friendly against Malawi, because it does not fall on a Fifa international weekend, but Gordon Igesund hopes he will join the national camp on December 27.
What are his Bafana ambitions this month?
"Shabba [Siphiwe Tshabalala] and Teko Modise and Lerato Chabangu are experienced players. I want to learn from them and maybe, if the coach can see that I'm ready to start, then that would be an achievement for me."
Then that formidable confidence breaks cover: "I'm ready for Bafana and the starting line-up." Obliged to cover his tracks, he offers a modest caveat: "But my aim is to learn."
Yes, but don't forget to educate us – on the topic of Ayanda Patosi.