Gift Leremi: The man who dreamt with his eyes open


All men dream: but not equally! Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity.

But dreamers of the day – like one Gift Mpho Leremi – are unrelenting men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to turn it into reality.

Countless times, before a match, the Soweto-born star dreamt of the goal he would score.
Most players, and maybe even those that do not have the pedigree to play the beautiful game at the highest level, have all had that wonderful dream in which they are unstoppable on the pitch. It is that one glorious dream in which one nimbly and gracefully dances past opponents and, with an expectant and excited crowd roaring at their back, blasts the ball into the opposition net.


That is the kind of dream that Leremi used to have recurrently. The difference between the former Orlando Pirates midfielder and the ordinary dreamer was that while a screaming alarm clock was all it took to bring the ordinary fellow to reality, Leremi, who also turned out for Mamelodi Sundowns, would not stop dreaming even after he woke up.

He would believe so much in his vivid dreams, in the incredible goals that he scored while he slept, that he would try to bring them to life when he woke up. He was the proverbial man who dreamt with his eyes wide open.

“Gift was a dreamer. He would wake up and tell you he dreamt taking a shot. He would practice that and would want to see it come to reality,” Leremi’s development coach at Pirates, Tebogo Moloi, recalls.

“He would force ‘Cheeseboy’ to give him a pass he saw in his dream. He would insist they come early for training so they can keep trying the move from the dream. He was a gift.”

Lebogang ‘Cheeseboy’ Mokoena remembers those moments at training when Leremi, convinced what had happened in his sleep could be brought to life, made him a partner in the elaborate drills that could turn fantasy into reality.

“He was a prophetic footballer,” Cheeseboy says with such pride. “The guy would dream of a move and he would explain it to me. Sometimes we’d score in the exact same way and after the game he would remind me of it.”

If anyone knew of Leremi and his dreams, it is Cheeseboy. While the two were luminaries of Kosta Papic’s pulsating Buccaneers side, they had known each way before that, way before the superstardom that donning skull and crossbones brings.

Before they set foot on lush fields around Mzansi, they showed off their skills in the dust of South Africa’s unfashionable stadiums for the Pirates development side. Back then, there were no chefs to prepare healthy, balanced meals for them, no nutritionists to monitor their diets.

Instead, they would wait for kick off holed up in a shack somewhere in Soweto, feasting on amagwinya and fantasising about becoming the top dogs one day.

“We would sit in a shack, watch movies, eating magwinya and biscuits. Then we would play at 3PM,” says Cheeseboy.

On the pitch, Leremi was a menace. Gifted with the ability to strike a ball with equal venom with both feet, and the ability to glide past opponents with blistering pace, “Vum Vum” was the Rolls Royce of South African attacking footballers discovered in the new millennium.

So slick was he on the pitch that Pirates development side czar Augusto Palacios remembers it took only a few minutes before he decided that the then Pimville Giants player was Pirates material.

“I was very impressed when I first saw him. We played 11 aside for 20 minutes each half. But after only five minutes we took him out because we were impressed. We needed to assess the other boys over and over, but with Gift we didn’t have to assess him after those 5 minutes. We knew we had found a gem of a talent,” the Peruvian coach says reverently.

Leremi was a rare breed. No wonder they named him gift twice (Mpho his Sotho name) as if to emphasise his inimitable aptitude on the pitch.

In addition to the ability to use both feet, he had the kind of work ethic that is rare in naturally gifted peeps.

“He liked to train all the time. You’d find him working out alone, from there he played in the township. He never liked to sit at home, he loved training. Football was his life,” Palacios says, adding that the ace would have made the grade anywhere in the world.

Many players have come and gone through the Pirates youth academy but years after he passed through his hands, Moloi says he has not seen talent of Leremi’s calibre.

“It’ll take us another 20 years before we can be able to find a player of that sort. I’ve coached everywhere, schools, the Vodacom League, I’ve scouted in all provinces, I’ve not seen something close to Gift. We’re still going to have to search. Gift was a machine,” Moloi says in utter admiration.

While he played with the arrogance of a man who knew full well his capabilities, off the field, Moloi says, Leremi was a people’s person, and a trendsetter.

“He loved the finer things of life, he saw himself becoming this big star, he understood what it meant to play for Pirates. He had a body that resembled Cristiano Ronaldo, but with more muscle especially in the upper body. He was a dedicated player, but very humble. He was a people’s person. On the field, he was arrogant,” adds Moloi, who played for Bucs between 1987 and 1997.

Perhaps that penchant for the good things of life caught up with Leremi later in life. At the tail end of his Pirates career, he became the stereotypical Mzansi diski prince whose wild lifestyle made the tabloid headlines more than the sport back pages.

But his move to the Brazilians in 2007 seemed to be just the tonic his life needed.

“You could see he was going to be something else at Sundowns,” says Moloi. “He had already won the hearts of Sundowns fans. They don’t easily accept you, but they had fallen in love with him. We don’t know what would have happened.” Sadly!

Cheeseboy also remembers a determined Leremi ready to dance to Sundowns’ Shoe Shine ‘n Piano.

“He came to my house after he moved to Sundowns because we were no longer staying together at the time. He said to me ‘I need boots’ and I gave him my blue Adidas boots. He explained to me ‘I need these boots because what I’m going to start now is a journey people won’t believe. I’ll be able to fulfil my dreams’. I gave him my boots. He was happy his life would take a new turn.”

Shortly before 9.15pm on Monday, 3 September 2007, a 22-year-old Leremi was travelling north on Kliprivier Road towards Johannesburg and just before the R556 split towards Lenasia, Leremi lost control of the dark-blue BMW 3-series, he was driving.

He swerved right, nipping the edge of the grassy centre divide with his right tyres before the car veered left.

He braked hard as the car cut over the left lane and shoulder, before hitting a shallow drainage ditch. The ditch did nothing to slow the momentum of the car, which climbed the nearby 2m embankment and threw Leremi from the front seat.

The car, still moving north, rolled several times before coming to rest 36m from Leremi’s body. His left arm and leg appear to have borne the brunt of the crash. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

His heart-rending death came only 12 days before he was to face the Buccaneers for the first time. The showdown between Leremi and his inseparable friend, Cheeseboy, would have come in a prestigious stage, the SAA Supa 8 final.

“His death hit me hard,” admits Cheeseboy. “I didn’t realise it affected my career as well. I lost the urge to push, I was not okay mentally. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any sort of counselling,” he adds.

The blow of his friend’s death, followed by the passing of his mother four months later, would have a lasting impact on Cheeseboy. “My mum tried to help me. Four months down the line I lost her as well. Both people I admired the most were taken away from me in my early 20s.”

Nonetheless, Cheeseboy, who went on to join Sundowns in 2009, singles out the period he played with Leremi at Bucs as the most memorable spell of his career.

“Playing with Gift. That’ll always be a standout period for me. The only thing I’m left with is all those memories. We did a lot of things on and off the field. He was like a brother to me. I felt protected. He also felt the comfort of having a young brother in me.”

For Cheeseboy, even 13 years after his death, the man nicknamed Continental remains one of the special talents that donned the skull and crossbones.

“Guys like Esrom (Nyandoro) were stunned by his talent after he joined Sundowns. They admitted we had something special in Gift, and that Pirates developed a quality player. He was still very young, playing with highly paid stars at Sundowns yet he still stamped his authority.”

Sadly, the bigger dream to one day be counted amongst Real Madrid’s Galácticos was cut short.

Death be not proud.

RELATED STORY: Palacios looking for new talent in Soweto

By Mthokozisi Dube

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