Rise and rise of the silver-tongued coach

Steve Komphela could talk the hind leg off a giraffe. So gifted is his gab gland that within three years of arriving in Turkey to defend for Gaziantepspor in 1993, he was hosting his own TV talk show, in Turkish. He uses words like a functional drunk uses booze: with controlled abandon.

“Part of my DNA is the ability to absorb languages fast,” he said this week.
“The Turks found it amazing that I accepted that I was one of them. A language learnt is the equivalent of becoming another person.”

But while becoming a Turk, he resolved to “become” a South African. “I was so embarrassed that I came from a place with no identity,” he recalls. “I couldn’t explain our society and culture to the Turks. We came from this deep depression, it was dark and empty, and I realised I needed to go back home and learn about my country and who we were.”

Until recently, it seemed Komphela was much more adept at marshalling words than players. The former Kroonstad schoolteacher’s coaching record is a spiky graph: he guided Manning Rangers to the top flight in 2003 and thrived in his first tenure at Free State Stars, but he failed to qualify the national under-23 side for the 2008 Olympics and suffered blowouts at both Platinum Stars and Dynamos.

Seizing his second chance
But during his second coming to Bethlehem, Komphela’s star has rocketed, not least because of Ea Lla Koto’s two victories over Orlando Pirates this season. Their strong form has not been limited to Buccaneer bashing; the mountain men have been prising points from a wide range of victims.

On paper, Komphela’s platoon of laaities and journeymen should not have a sniff at the league title, but they are sniffing it nonetheless. This week’s 3-1 reverse to Pirates ended a strong run, but Ea Lla Koto are still only seven points behind log leaders Sundowns, with eight games to go.

Komphela believes his side should by rights be topping the table. “In the first round, a series of poor decisions by officials impacted heavily on us,” he said. “We lost points unfairly at SuperSport United, Platinum Stars, Bloemfontein Celtic and Kaizer Chiefs. Were it not for those unfortunate incidents, we could be on 44 points as we speak, two points ahead of Sundowns.”

Aside from Zambians Kennedy Mweene and Noah Chivuta, the Stars squad is largely starless. The club loses two or three rising talents every season to bigger sides, but Komphela keeps scouting for cheap and competent replacements. This year, gifted striker Edward Manqele, canny midfielder Coldrin Coetzee and tireless winger Katlego Mashego are likely to attract poachers, but skipper Mweene is not for sale.

“Great keepers must have personality and that’s what Kennedy has in abundance,” said Komphela. “He fits the profile of the modern, technically skilled keeper. There are Premier Soccer League outfielders who can’t match his ability on the ball. He’s been with us seven seasons now, so he understands the culture and values of the club too.”

Said Mweene: “Steve is the type of person who, when he doesn’t like something, he tells you there and then. You don’t take it personally, if it’s the truth. He has taught us not to be pompous, to respect every opponent. That’s been our secret.”

Destined for Kaizer Chiefs?
With convincing young South African coaches in short supply, Komphela’s rising credibility has thrown the rumour mill into top gear. Speculation that he will take command at Kaizer Chiefs next season refuses to go away, despite repeated denials by both parties.

Komphela would be a bold and refreshing choice for the Amakhosi job, but many would question the wisdom of the South African Football Association’s alleged deal with Komphela to moonlight as Bafana’s assistant coach. Pitso Mosimane cannot be thrilled at the prospect, but he is in no position to tell the suits to leave his setup alone after Bafana’s failure to qualify for this year’s Africa Nations Cup.

If the appointment does happen, Komphela will need to apply all his diplomatic gifts. And at a time when black coaches are making little headway in the PSL, it would not hurt to see the country’s two leading black coaches collaborating effectively on the international stage. The local football public does not fret much about the dominance of white coaches, largely because most of the league’s clubs are black-owned.

Komphela is much gentler in rhetoric and politics than his brother, Butana, the MP and notorious tormentor of rugby and cricket selectors, but he sees room for change.

“One must acknowledge the fact that we are very privileged to be professional athletes and coaches. And we have a moral responsibility in whatever we say or do to mould and advance the objectives of the nation.

“But I still have a strong feeling that black coaches in South Africa are still not judged on the content of our characters. Not that we should be appointed on the strength of being a local lad. It is nice to have foreign expertise, but it’s even nicer to have local expertise that is just as capable.”

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