Ria Ledwaba remembers a gawky teenage Teko Modise standing in front of her asking for a raise.
The year was 2001. The first lady of diski, Ledwaba, was at the helm of ‘Manyora’, the now defunct Ria Stars FC.
Modise was virtually unknown in local football. He was merely a rookie at Manyora. No one gave a hoot about an 18-year-old, who was only good enough to make six appearances the entire season. In fact, he was the lowest paid player at the Pietersburg (now Polokwane) club.
Instead of adding a mere R100 onto his scanty salary, Ledwaba offered some unsolicited, stern advice for her burgeoning star.
“I told him, ‘young man, in life you must never rush for money. I can see you’ll make a lot of money in your career’,” Ledwaba tells FARPost.
The veteran administrator, Ledwaba, who spots a youthful look with the famous blonde crop she has kept for decades, had no doubt the budding starlet in front of her was set for dizzy heights in the world of diski.
“What a talented young boy he was. The late Styles Phumo was our coach at the time and he kept saying he doesn’t see how Teko cannot play football in Europe,” she says.
Of course, every ‘how to succeed’ pep talk dumped on Modise during those days carried the same jargon – determination, passion and hard work. Undoubtedly, the so-called ‘wisdom nuggets’ all became insipidly cliché.
However, those that witnessed Modise carve a niche for himself in South Africa’s second tier – the First Division – say he effortlessly typified sheer determination and the true ethos of a man on a mission.
It’s that fortitude that got Ledwaba persuaded she had found an uncut diamond; one she would export to far-flung Europe.
For Jazzman Mahlakgane, his agent of 14 years and counting, the resolve to win Modise exhibited in a crucial promotional tie between City Pillars and Benoni United in 2006 had him throwing cash at another agent – Alex Bondarenko – as he was immediately convinced he was capturing the next best thing in local football. Modise, at the time, had some outstanding matters with Bondarenko.
Mahlakgane, in turn, was more than happy to settle it to take over as the young star’s manager.
That same willpower prompted City Pillars coach Vladislav Heric to assuredly declare, with the acumen of a biblical prophet, that one of his players would showcase their talent at the world’s biggest football stage – the World Cup finals. It was that sheer talent that caught the eye of a man affectionately known for his musical exploits with talents like Brenda Fassie – Sello ‘Chicco’ Twala – months before Modise stood in front of Ledwaba asking for a raise.
Modise, who had stints with amateur sides Coventry and City Rebels, vividly remembers the day it all started. All he had to do was sway Twala with his unrivaled football skills. It was on a scorching hot Saturday afternoon in what looked like an unimportant friendly match pitting Ria Stars’ reserve side against a Tembisa XI select in Dobsonville, Soweto. But a striving Modise was pulled off 20 minutes into the game. The instruction was clear – he was to sit next to a man who rose to prominence in the 1980s for his African pop and disco music – Twala. The We Miss You Manelo-hitmaker co-owned Ria Stars.
Shocked, hopeless and dissatisfied, Modise reluctantly retreated to the bench. “I was used to disappointment,” he says in a distressing tone. He was certain he had blown yet another chance. “In Diepkloof (where he grew up after moving from Meadowlands), we always spoke about how at trials you only get four minutes, so I had lost all hope,” Modise adds.
To his surprise, he was told he would start in the main game. Instantly rejuvenated, Modise thought he would finally get a full game to prove his mettle, but Twala had other ideas. He dashed the boy’s hopes, substituting him after 45 minutes. Thereafter, what followed was a promise that Twala would visit his house the following day. For a boy, who had been deceived and fed lies his whole life‚ this felt like another hollow promise.
Luckily, Twala kept his word albeit armed with yet another promise. This time, he would pick him up from Soweto’s Diepdale High School, where Modise was attending, the following day and drive him to Pietersburg where he would link up with his ‘new teammates’ at Ria Stars.
Too good to be true, Modise thought and brushed it aside as if to shield himself from the blows of disappointment. Monday morning came. It was back to school with a bit of uncertainty. Assembly came and passed, and it seemed like he had been sold another dummy. Barely 10 minutes into the first period, the entire school was called to assembly for a special announcement.
To Modise’s surprise, the man who had promised to take him to Ria Stars, Twala (pictured below) stood right next to the headmaster.
Moments later, the school erupted into a frenzy after hearing one of their own was being taken to a Premier League club.
“He believed in himself, he was every coach’s dream,” Ledwaba says of Modise’s one season at Ria Stars.
The next chapter in his budding career was a move to City Pillars in 2002. Ria Stars, a name he has a sentimental attachment with, was folding. Its owners had accepted an R8-million cheque from the PSL, who were reducing the teams from 18 to 16 ahead of the 2002/03 season. It turned out to be a seamless step in his career, as he spent a fruitful four seasons at the club in the First Division. Modise had an impressive record, weighing in with a significant number of goals for Pillars.
Heric, who coached him in the 2005/06 season, describes him as their “point man” – the warrior at the head of their attacks. “Teko dominated the First Division. He was excellent,” the Serbian says.
Modise, crowned Mvela’s Player of the Season that particular campaign, concurs with his former boss. Those formative years, he acknowledges, were for nothing more than sheer enjoyment and cathartic release.
“In Mvela, Teko was a free-spirited footballer enjoying what he was doing and grateful for the platform he had been given. People who saw me there will tell you I was a better player,” Modise reminisces.
Mahlakgane witnessed it in an explosive encounter he watched (against Benoni United). “The boy was buzzing. I’ve never seen a player who dominates so much that everyone else literally disappears. I only saw Teko on the pitch that day. He was determined to win – he took every throw-in, free-kick and corner kick,” he explains heartily. A pitiless Modise left many a defender crawling in his wake. Opposition defenders would be shaking in their boots as he relentlessly dished out shibobos with poise and composure. He was just unstoppable. But he was playing in the wrong League.
“After that season, 15 out of 16 PSL teams were interested in signing him. I told Pitso (Mosimane, who was at SuperSport United at the time) the boy was ready to play PSL football,” Heric reveals.
Modise’s secret, Heric adds, was discipline and dedication.
“He never missed a training session,” he says, adding that Teko finished amongst the top scorers that season with 14 goals while pulling the strings in the ‘middle of the park’.
“He’s the proper role model for youngsters to succeed.”
And it came as no surprise when Modise was named in Bafana Bafana’s FIFA World Cup squad in 2010.
“The players (former City Pillars) called me and told me I was right. They remembered my prediction,” Heric concludes.
For Ledwaba, her only burden is that ‘Dona’ never made it to one of Europe’s top Leagues.
Nonetheless, there is a consensus among those that saw him climb the ladder of success – his story is filled with awe-inspiring moments. His meteoric rise yelps ‘everybody can chart their own course irrespective of their circumstances’.
RELATED STORY: PART 2: The discovery and making of Teko Modise
By Mthokozisi Dube