The Bucs got their comeuppance from a team with enough spirit to shame the Premier Soccer League.
Most days, a silent committee of mountains is the only audience at the Maluti Further Education Training College’s training sessions outside Phuthaditjhaba. But the crowd swelled a little on Wednesday afternoon.
At one corner of the training pitch lurked a hawk-eyed players’ agent in a flashy car. Four journalists from Johannesburg dotted the touchlines. A herd of sulky cattle mooched on a nearby hillside – temporarily banished from the pitch, though their droppings remained. To the south, just beyond the Lesotho border, a routine thunderstorm went about its business.
About 40 minutes after training was due to start, the vintage Maluti team bus finally appeared, wheezing its way up a grassy track to the pitch. The passengers guffawed at the spectacle of two photographers chasing after their bus. At last, the legendary slayers of Orlando Pirates bounded on to the pitch, with an enthusiasm never seen at the start of Premier Soccer League training sessions.
“It was our 90 minutes to change our lives,” recalled Lucky Mokoena, the brash 22-year-old striker who netted twice in Maluti’s surreal 4-1 victory against the Buccaneers on Saturday February 23.
“Each player took it as our game,” he said, emphasising the last two words with dramatic zeal. “I wanted to change my life – from today. And if I say that, then he says that, and the whole team says that, and we will have one spirit. But if I had wanted to show them Lucky Mokoena alone, I wouldn’t have had such a good game. We had to do it as a team, not as individuals.
“We realised there’s nothing special about those teams in the PSL,” said Mokoena disdainfully. “The only difference is that some of their players have national team colours. But some of them didn’t show any hunger. And we decided to show everybody that we don’t deserve to play in an amateur league. And some of the players in the PSL – they don’t deserve to be there.”
Mokoena’s mouthiness stands out against the gentleness and politeness of most Phuthaditjhaba locals. It’s no surprise that he hails from Bethal in Mpumalanga and attended the Highlands North High School in Johannesburg, on a zigzagging route to the Maluti mountains.
As they promised, Maluti transformed their lives this week. But fame itself is not edible and it will take a while before any of them escape the humble routines of broke students in shabby flip-flops. They all share a spartan residence on campus, and each player is paid a stipend of a few thousand rand a month by the college, where they are pursuing courses in sports management. The college authorities buy their groceries and they cook together at home.
Generous win bonuses for their Nedbank Cup exploits have provided pocket money and lifted spirits – not that they needed lifting. The best is yet to come.
The agent at the training session estimated that the three best players in the side would command starting salaries of R30 000 or more if they join a middleweight PSL side in the next off-season. The Gauteng giants would offer significantly more. Mokoena is now hot property, as is defender Mashale Rantabane (23), who scored with two regal headers against Bucs.
A pleasant, mild character with a wise face, Rantabane hails from Ngwathe township near Edenburg. He leads the songs – especially the team’s favourite anthem, Etelele, which is about the length and toughness of the journey.
Nobody can testify to the toughness of any worthwhile journey better than Maluti’s coach, Morena “King” Ramoreboli. Now 32, this rotund son of Bloemfontein is finally approaching his destination, after throwing himself into a coaching career at the age of 17. And he has a disarming knack for blowing his own trumpet so mildly that he comes across as anything but arrogant. “King” idolises the tactics and persona of José Mourinho – but he’s a special kind of special one.
Development of players
“I’m streetwise,” he declared softly. “I know how to get the best out of the players. How to make them feel happy, how to make them feel important. And I know it’s important to let players see the things they can achieve. If you make them feel important, they will make you a better coach and a star.”
Like many of the finest coaches, Ramoreboli never played the game with any seriousness. “I always believed in seeing players being coached properly, so I realised I could do a better job as a coach than as a player. At 17, I had my own team, Juventus, and we won plenty of youth tournaments. Then the Bloemfontein Young Tigers chairman Ntate Khoarai said: ‘You know what, let’s start the development of these players.’ Financially I was not that stable, so I accepted his offer to join his club as development coach, along with my players. That was in 2003.”
Soon afterwards, Ramoreboli was promoted to the senior Tigers side, assisting David Vilakazi, before securing promotion to the National First Division with the Phuthaditjhaba side African Warriors – Maluti’s opponents in the next round – an achievement that attracted an offer from Maluti.
“Locally I used to be a big fan of VV [Vladimir Vermezovic] while he was at Chiefs – I liked the speed and aggression of his players. Steve Komphela is one of my favourites, and so is Serame Letsoaka. Overseas, I support José Mourinho big time. I listen very carefully to his interviews. Him and Steve are top of my list.
“At Young Tigers, people only knew me in Bloemfontein. Since I promoted African Warriors, 60% of soccer lovers in the Free State know who is this boy Morena. But I had to do something bigger than just promoting a team. So I’ve now started to brand my name, thanks be to God, and I only see bigger things to come. I’ll be here for as long as my dreams are being achieved. My next goal after the Nedbank Cup is to promote this team.”
But first there are more overpaid big shots to be toppled. “We are hoping to produce a better performance in the next game. Some of our players could have done better against Pirates – they froze a bit due to the stage and the pressure. We can improve the speed of both attack and defence.”
Something tells me “King” is not faking his displeasure. African Warriors have been duly warned. This fairy tale includes scenes of a violent nature.