Rivaldo Coetzee’s career is like a perverse game of snakes and ladders. He rolled a few sixes, got fairly high up, only to catch a nasty break that all but sent him back to square one.
Here’s someone that was born to play football. That’s about as obvious an observation any fan of the game could make when they learn that he’s named after the legendary Brazillian No 10. Considering the trajectory of his young career, it’s obvious it goes far beyond his name.
“Yes! I think so. I don’t want to do anything else,” he says on the sidelines of the Sundowns training base at Chloorkop. “I love football and I try to do my best to keep this job. But sometimes it’s not that easy to stay in this type of environment. It can be easy to get there but to stay there and be consistent is one of the most difficult things you could do. That’s what I’m looking for: consistency.”
It’s unusual to hear a footballer talk in such survivalist tones. Ask most about their career and they’ll immediately look to the future. They’ll yammer on about how hard they work; how they’re pushing to win themselves and their team a bucketful of trophies in the foreseeable future.
But Coetzee was scalded the last time he reached out to touch his dreams. It may have been through no fault of his own, but his travails have taught him that progression is not a natural law. Sometimes, we get caught in a tumble backwards instead.
His story is the melancholic contrast to successful moves such as Percy Tau’s. Two years ago Coetzee’s then club, Ajax Cape Town, announced it had reached an agreement with Scottish giants Celtic for his transfer. All that remained was a medical — a formality in the vast majority of modern moves.
Except in his case, it wasn’t. A screen picked up a broken bone in his foot and the move was scrapped. What should have been an opportunity to play against Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich in the Champions League instead turned into cloud that perpetually hovers over him.
“Sjoe, almost every day,” he says when asked if he’s still haunted by the failed test. “I keep thinking about it. It might not be good for me … but maybe it could be good for my career to think about why they wanted to sign me. There must have been something that I did well for them to see that.
“I have to try and get back to that level. I’m playing in a different position but it’s always to try and get better: to help the team and contribute to its success. And then, hopefully, another opportunity will arrive.”
Coetzee’s not wrong about Celtic seeing something in him. His entire disrupted career is a tale of belief — belief that he has something in him that will one day blossom into greatness. It’s that belief that saw him make his Premier Soccer League debut at 17; that saw Shakes Mashaba call him up to Bafana Bafana before he turned 18, making him the youngest cap at the time; that persuaded Pitso Mosimane to sign him at Sundowns despite knowing that he would be on the sidelines for at least a year.
It turned out it would be longer, and many more months until Coetzee has finally reached the point at which he threatens to break in as a regular. Until then, it was relentless rehabilitation.
“It was very difficult. Three years prior to that I played almost every game at Ajax; I had gotten used to that,” he says. “But when I came here, you know, I think for eight, nine months I didn’t touch a ball. I was just in the gym while the guys were out on the field. You know, sometimes, I didn’t even want to come to training because it’s heartbreaking when your teammates are doing something that you love and you’re not able to be apart of that. But I tried to keep strong mentally; my support system was good around me. That has helped me to push through it.”
Sundowns’ apparent patience with Coetzee belies the club’s reputation as a talent hoarder that gives no thought to spitting out expensive buys that don’t fit in.
Mosimane has even plotted a new path for his young Bafana international. Before the end of last season he tested him out in the base of midfield against Black Leopards — a game in which he was named man of the match — and has since nudged him away from his preferred centre-back position.
Never one to begrudge his charges an overseas move, Mosimane has insisted that Coetzee’s best chance of catching a train back to Europe begins at No 6. Whether it comes to fruition is now up to the player.
For as much bad fortune he’s had with injury, the time to repay the faith is now. Only Coetzee can produce the football that puts him back on the trajectory he was rudely knocked off.
“You know, I’m not so young anymore but I still have the ambition to go to Europe,” he says of his revisited dreams. “But obviously now I have to work and get back into the team. Once I get the opportunity to play, it’s [the time] to be at my best; try and be consistent throughout the season. That is what would be best for me and the team as well, because when the team is doing well, people see the individuals within the team. Ja, hopefully that chance will come again,” he says.
He has just turned 23 and is at the most ambitious team in the country: there should be no shortage of excitement about Coetzee’s renewed chances. Yet, once again you get the sense that more than anything he fears having his current lot taken away him. Ultimately, playing football for a living is a dream come true, even if it isn’t under bright European lights. Perhaps it’s that fight to cling to what he has that has persuaded so many to continue to invest their faith in him.