Citizen Kermit is back on game

Kermit Erasmus is beginning to feel like himself again. For three years, a shell of a man sat on Europe’s benches, forced to watch life pass him by on the pitch in front of him. For players of his ilk, who are single-minded about playing the game and winning it, the prestige and financial reward of playing overseas is not worth the sacrifice.

“There’s nothing better for a footballer than to be on the field,” he says.

“I know what it’s like being out of the game for such a long time. The fact is I wasn’t even injured, I was fully fit and I was just taking care of myself physically. I’m just happy to be back in South Africa. Obviously I would have hoped for things to have worked out differently in Europe but some things you can’t control and I just focus on the things I can.”

Signed to Cape Town City in December (registered in January), Erasmus is rebuilding his career and reputation. Both were left in pieces after that ill-fated move abroad.

So far the mission is on track. While he laments injury niggles that have restricted his playing time somewhat, there’s no denying that he’s come in and made an impression.

Under Benni McCarthy’s guidance, he’s helped the Citizens force their way into the title conversation. When he plays, there’s a noticeable fluidity to the attack and on their best day only Sundowns are capable of playing more exciting football.

His performances even led to a mini outrage when Bafana Bafana coach Stuart Baxter left him out of the squad for the do-or-die qualifier against Libya. Ostensibly it was because he hadn’t played much in the last year, the Scot said … before revealing the real reason anyway.

“Kermit has problems if he’s on the periphery,” Baxter explained, after initially heaping praise on him. “Because he feels like he’s an important player‚ and he is an important player. But maybe he doesn’t deal with it too well if he’s a squad player. Now he’s feeling as if he’s the man at City. And I didn’t think I could give him that scenario now with the national team.”

The remarks are revealing, if not surprising. Erasmus draws his power from being the heart of the team. He needs the game to flow through him on his terms and at his speed.

That’s not an indictment. Maradona too would have been a listless sod had he not been given, and accepted, full attacking responsibility. Instead he harnessed it and almost single-handedly led Argentina to the 1986 World Cup. Not to compare the ability of the two, of course, but it’s a fact of football life that some players need their team to build their style around them.

How much that perception of Erasmus contributed to his travails in Europe is impossible to know. He maintains, however, that he gave it everything and simply wasn’t given the opportunity to show his worth by his respective coaches. And there were many of those as he was shown the door more often than the proverbial village leper.

In his short time on the continent, he played for four clubs across three countries, taking part in only a handful of games.

After initially earning his move to Stade Rennais in Rennes, France, Erasmus went on loan to RC Lens a year later in Ligue 2 before soon being permanently shipped out to the second division in Sweden.

He only had about four months at AFC Eskilstuna before joining Vitória Setúbal in the Portuguese Primeira Liga. He would barely touch a ball before coming home.

It’s a period he can now afford to look back on defiantly and stoically.

“It would be a different story if I actually played and I didn’t grab my chance,” he insists. “I could have said: ‘Ja, I’ve failed.’ I don’t see it as a failure, it was just, ja … things I couldn’t control and I just have to accept it.

“I could have easily come back to South Africa and given up. Fallen by the wayside. But it’s all about what you do afterwards. It’s like how the saying goes: it’s not how many times you fall but how many times you get up that defines you.

“I think personally I’ve done a great job in how I’ve handled things mentally,” he said.

“It was a challenge and I took it in the best way possible. We’re all human beings and I think some people think we don’t feel what ordinary people do but as footballers we also get frustrated, we also feel down. It’s okay to feel like that but it’s how you react to that that defines you.”

Third-place City have six games to overhaul Orlando Pirates and Mamelodi Sundowns. It’s a tough ask, but given how unpredictable McCarthy has been in recent years, it’s not something you would comfortably rule out.

Which is why the imagination of Erasmus fits so well into this imagined outcome.

In him you have a player who can produce the incredible in the most unexpected of moments. His vicious thump against Masandawana at Loftus is the crown jewel of what he’s capable of and gave us one of the true gobsmacking moments of the season.

It’s hard to admit, but South Africa needs more moments of invention like that. The type that Percy Tau reminded us that we’re missing with his brace against Libya.

Because it feels like the former SuperSport United and Bucs star has been around forever, one tends to forget Erasmus is only 28 and should be operating at his prime for a few seasons more. With an ambitious Citizens side in his corner, it would appear that the future is bright once more.

A travel-weary Erasmus, however, has no desire to indulge any walks through dreamland.

“I try not to plan too much ahead because we cannot predict the future. Anything is possible, but when you plan too far ahead you lose track of what you’re doing in the present.

“That’s what I’ve learned in my career: focus on what you’ve got and give everything in the present moment.”

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Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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