Innocent Maela and the life-changing magic of scribbling goals

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The scientific and anecdotal evidence for writing down goals is quite overwhelming. At least theoretically for many.

But Innocent Maela discovered the life-changing magic of scribbling one’s dreams when he was on the brink of quitting the game he loves so much.

Growing up in Witbank, Mpumalanga, Maela always yearned for the big stage. ‘Deco’, a name he earned before he was converted to left back, had a dream to turn out for his boyhood club – Orlando Pirates.

His older brother Nqoba Mahlangu tells a story of how the talented full back would juggle a ball on his way to the shops whenever he was sent to go and buy bread.

“He’d grab his ball when he was sent to the shops. Mom would question how much longer it would take him to get to the shops juggling a soccer ball. He wouldn’t do it any other way, he loved his football from a young age,” Mahlangu tells FARPost.

That led to stints with two amateur sides in his hometown – Celtic FC and Tsetse Fly. The first of those came at the age of 9.

After eight years of playing amateur football, he caught the eye of then Pirates youth coach Thabo Senong, who went to the Highveld of Mpumalanga scouting for talent in 2009.

The following year, before Maela turned 18, he joined Bucs’ development side. His dream was all coming together perfectly. It felt like a giant leap towards his utmost desire. He was out of amateur football, turning out for the academy of one of the continent’s revered clubs.

Of course, having started off as a striker, and later being converted to a left attacking winger at Pirates was quite exciting. But before he even settled into his new position that still allowed him to bang in goals as he always loved, he was moved to left back.

“I can tell you now, no left back starts off wanting to play left back. A lot of us start off somewhere else and then switch later,” says Maela, whose childhood idol was Patrice Evra, the Frenchman who made his name with Manchester United.

With time, he grew to love his new position. His young mind was made up.

It made sense after all – his brother Tsepo Masilela was excelling in the same position for Israeli side Maccabi Haifa and Bafana Bafana.

“Tsepo was of great help to me. I remember how I used to talk to him a lot on the phone when he was in Israel and he would advise me on how I could make a career out of football,” he says.

It was inspiration galore for the boy. Deco is that apple that did not fall far from the tree. His dad Eric Masilela is a Witbank Aces legend who shared dressing rooms with yesteryear stars like Lawrence Siyangaphi, Harris Chueu, Steve Makua and Thomas Ngobe, the father of Dumisa Ngobe, a former Bafana midfielder.

“My father played a huge role because he also played football. He was the only one who really believed I could play football professionally, not so much my mother,” the lanky full back says. His mother never really concerned herself about whether her starlet son had what it took to play at the highest level. All she wanted was her bread to come speedily.

Nonetheless, Mahlangu singles out one thing his mother equipped them with, that carried Maela through his ‘dark days’. It was faith in her God. “Our mom would take us to her church in Witbank. They still know Inno there,” says the proud brother.

His teammate at Pirates, Mthokozisi Dube, then reveals that the man always has a bible in his car. His repeated references to the goodness of God in his life throughout the interview then makes sense. Perhaps his spectacular rise in the last 4 years is the result of the power of a praying mother.

But then again, there’s that little note that seemingly made all the difference. It read something like: “I’ll go back to Orlando Pirates and fight for that left back position”.

“It was quite fascinating when he showed the note to me once we both got back to Pirates from loan. I remember we were in the bus going to a game,” says Dube, who spent five years away on loan at Roses United, Royal Eagles and Bloemfontein Celtic.

Students of the word of God would be quick to agree that Maela’s inspiration to write down his dream of returning to Pirates after a frustrating lengthy spell away on loan was taken from Habakkuk 2 verse 2. As if to affirm the claim, Maela confirms he has read Habakkuk, the 35th book of the bible with only 3 chapters and 56 verses.

The particular verse that resonates with Maela’s journey reads, “I will give you my message in the form of a vision. Write it clearly enough to be read at a glance.”

Out of curiosity, this writer then read verse 3, which further says, “Put it in writing, because it is not yet time for it to come true. But the time is coming quickly, and what I show you will come true. It may seem slow in coming but wait for it; it will certainly take place, and it will not be delayed.” It aptly mirrors the many turns Deco’s career took.

Of course, when he wrote those words down, despair had creeped in. It was an arduous 2 seasons away on loan at Witbank Spurs from 2012 to 2014 and then Thanda Royal Zulu in Richards Bay, where he spent another 3 gruelling seasons. His utmost dream definitely seemed slow in coming as the verse suggests. “It was very tough,” he admits.

His childhood friend Andile Mtsweni, who joined the Soweto giants’ development side together with him, ended up quitting the game for an 8 to 5 job after being loaned out. He explains the difficulties of a youngster hopeful of donning the skull and crossbones sent away for years as if forgotten.

“When it happens, it feels sad because you want to be around Pirates, a club you’d have grown to love. A lot of things go through your mind because you’re young and you don’t understand at that point. You think the club is ditching you but when you grow up you realise it was necessary for your development,” says Mtsweni, who left Pirates at the end of 2011. He’s pictured above with Maela.

Maela reveals that he was close to quitting football after ‘Amabhubesi’ narrowly survived the chop at the end of the 2015/16 season.

“I almost quit football when Thanda Royal Zulu survived relegation, I told my mom that I’d been out on loan for 4 years, going to 5. I made it clear that if nothing happened (Pirates recalling him), I’d quit football and go back to school because I’m still young. She said to me ‘give it one more shot, son’,” he says.

Quitting football and going back to school was seemingly working for his comrade Mtsweni, who had moved on and was enjoying life. Interestingly, Maela had earlier in his career dropped out of the University of Johannesburg, where he was studying for a Diploma in Marketing, after just 2 months to focus on the world’s most beautiful game.

At that point, the words he had inscribed on paper were as good as ancient history. None of them made sense. It seemed his beloved Buccaneers had totally forgotten him.
However, the next season was to change it all. That was the 2016/17 season.

“We won the 2016/17 NFD and gained promotion to the PSL,” says Maela, who captained the Richards Bay outfit during that season.

He had certainly grown – enough to be entrusted with the armband. And certainly, enough to lead a club to a coveted title triumph. Again, approaching 25, he felt he was of age.

There was a silver lining. At least then, even if Bucs didn’t recall him from loan, he’d face them in the PSL and show how much he had developed into a top left back. “Winning the League with Thanda was a silver lining in my career,” he says.

But he and his teammates were to suffer a major blow a few days later. Thanda sold its PSL status to AmaZulu 3 days after the players had sweated to get the team promoted. “At that point, I thought maybe things were not meant to be. I was back to square one,” explains the Bafana fullback.

But the words he had inscribed on that diary of his were about to come to life. It was time for them to spring to full manifestation. And much more.

“Days later, the chairman (Dr Irvin Khoza) called to tell me they had been following my development and I was ready to come back to Pirates,” says Maela.

While he was still celebrating his imminent return to Bucs, then Bafana coach Stuart Baxter drafted him into a 20-man squad for the 2017 Cosafa Cup. “It felt like God was making up for what seemed like delays in my career,” he adds.

It turns out the man who discovered that teenage gem in Witbank, Senong, who is now at the helm of the Lesotho national team, recommended him.

“I had been following him at Thanda Royal Zulu. I told Stuart Baxter that there was a left back at Thanda Royal Zulu. I believed he would be one of the best. Stuart was initially doubtful about a player coming from the NFD into the national team. But after having a look at him, he said, ‘Thabo, this is the right one’. He had a decent tournament,” said Senong, who was Baxter’s assistant at the time.

A few weeks after the Cosafa breakthrough, Maela had the safest landing – picking up the Man of the Match award on his Pirates debut. The self-effacing full back provided the assist for Thamsanqa Gabuza’s solitary goal as the Buccaneers recorded a 1-0 win over Chippa United.

That same season, he was a revelation at Pirates as he established himself as one of the club’s key players. He made 26 appearances for the club across all competitions, earning himself a place in the Bafana squad that won the Four-Nations tournament in Zambia in March 2018.
He was then named in the 23-man squad that represented the country at the Africa Cup of Nations finals held in Egypt in June last year. Goodness and mercy were pursuing the ardent believer.

“If I were to pick my most memorable football moment, it would have to be the goal I scored in the (Soweto) derby (against Kaizer Chiefs),” says the 27-year-old. It was a header from a Justin Shonga corner-kick that levelled matters before Vincent Pule grabbed the winner after tapping an Augustine Mulenga cross into an empty net to make it 2-1 (27 October 2018).

“That goal will always be special because it was in a derby,” says Maela, who turns 28 on August 14.

Maybe, just maybe, when Maela wrote those words he was deciding what he was ordering on Earth’s menu. Today, the man is living his dream!

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By Mthokozisi Dube

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