The rare fairytale of Percy Tau

It wasn’t long after arriving in England that Percy Tau had to cough up the tax all footballers must pay to live out their dreams: dealing with the media people. Speaking to Brighton & Hove Albion’s official channel, he was asked the lessons he had learned while playing on a Belgian football pitch for two-and-a-half years.

“Personality,” he said through his endearing, bashful, smile. “Simple as that.” 

Taken aback by not receiving a regular platitude, the interviewer pressed him on what personality his new fans may see from him.

“Being confident, believing in the talent that God gave me,” came the response. “And also working in and around the team — most teams that I’ve been to had a personality, a way into how they play, and a way into how they behave.”

It’s understandable that Tau might count mental attributes as his key take-away from his three loan spells in the country. As successful as it has been, his time in Europe has also been darkened by uncertainty, so often the bane of a footballing career. Until now he has had to dribble on an uncertain path, keeping his head down in the hope that factors out of his control fall his way.

Knuckling down

A South African superstar, it will inevitably be his role as a flag bearer in the English Premier League (we have not seen one since Steven Pienaar) that will capture the most attention. But arguably it is his fightback from the brink of remoteness that provides the far more intriguing narrative. He is an example of a buck to the system — an inspiration and potentially an outlier, the rare exception who may prove the rule.

It threatened to be very different, of course. Following a stellar PSL season, in which he reduced the player of the year vote to a formality, Tau earned a ticket to England’s South Coast to play for a team in the world’s most-watched league. 

The problem was that it was immediately clear he would not be slipping into a blue-and-white shirt thanks to issues with securing a work permit. Among the many stringent requirements that stood in his way was Bafana Bafana’s feeble global ranking that would not be improved anytime soon. 

And so Tau went on loan to Royale Union Saint-Gilloise in the Belgium second division. For a player who had sparkled so brilliantly in front of packed, mesmerised stadiums, it felt criminal to exile him to the lower echelon of mediocre Flemish football. 

It was made all the more conspicuous because Brighton’s owner, Tony Bloom, had recently acquired Union and was evidently shuffling around his assets at will.

At the Mail & Guardian, we lamented the fact that the greatest local player of his generation had apparently surrendered to his fate. We questioned whether he had received the appropriate guidance in the cutthroat world of football transfers. 

To his immense credit, Tau put his knuckles into the ground and got to work; first in his stodgy initial assignment and later in his well-earned moves to Club Brugge and Anderlecht. 

The latter two took him far closer to the level we all believe he should be playing at and even onto the master stage that is the Champions League.

And then, Brexit. What is a bureaucratic nightmare for most in Europe became an open door for one diminutive South African. Brighton had had the foresight to predict that the eventuality would erode the barriers to Tau’s work permit and inserted a recall option into his latest loan agreement. They exercised that option at the first available opportunity.

(John McCann/M&G)

Lost and forgotten

You’ve probably never heard of Matej Delač. There’s little reason why you would have: the Croatian goalkeeper has done little of note in his career. But when he left Chelsea in 2018, Delač was the club’s longest-serving professional. That fact is true even if he did not make a single appearance for his handlers amid no less than ten loan spells.

In the Blues’ longevity stakes, his spiritual successor was Lucas Piazon — a baby-faced, once-highly touted Brazilian attacker who waved goodbye last week after nine-and-a-half years at the team. He’s gone one better than Delač and has made one appearance.

Delač and Piazon are two examples of what might be considered collateral damage in the modern era of bartering. The last decade, governed by financial fair play regulations, has given birth to a new way of approaching the transfer market. Streamlined and popularised by Chelsea, but certainly not unique to the club, the idea is simple: scoop up talent at bargain prices, send them out on loan for experience and exposure, and then sell on for a healthy profit. Most who are churned through this system have no hope of making it at their parent clubs.

European football has always been a merciless environment, particularly for African players who enter historically racist spaces that are all too happy to exploit their desperate dreams. But some might argue this new style of grooming for sale is even more pernicious than capitalist indifference.

When the tide changed 

Hence, when Tau signed to Brighton for £2.8-million, a pittance for a Premier League club, with no prospect of actually playing for them, alarm bells began to sound. Would his price tag be fattened before he is plucked and sold to an arbitrary Russian team?

Fortunately, it appears we can assuage the fears we had that Bafana’s best player would get lost in the wilderness. After a cameo off the FA Cup bench, Tau was trusted from the start in an arduous visit to possession-hoarding Manchester City. There’s arguably no game more frustrating for an opposition forward, but Tau still managed to produce a couple of his trademark feint-and-burst runs that news channels back home could play on repeat. 

It’s unclear what role manager Graham Potter envisions for his recruit, but almost certainly he will dish out further chances.

To the Seagulls’ credit, it appears they had always held out hope of Tau’s arrival and had him in their long-term vision.  

“I always had contact with the club all the time during my loans,” Tau told The Athletic in his second media engagement. “Every time, they would come up with something, ‘This is possible, this might be possible’, and I would always be excited and hoping that, actually, it might happen. But then it didn’t.”

“They would let me know about any developments in how I could get here. This time around, they said, ‘It’s going to happen.’ I was like, ‘OK, I’ll wait to see again if it really does’, and it’s happened!”

Entering into his prime and with a new club desperate for a saviour (with just two league wins all season), there is every chance the 26-year-old becomes a cult figure at Brighton. He’s a type player that an English crowd would easily adore: a hardworking introvert whose humble nature belies his audacious skill on the pitch. Amid the potential adulation, which will also only continue back home, is a success story; one that one can only hope will inspire clubs to look differently at their expansive rosters of talent.

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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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