Jabulani Maluleke is by no means a larger-than-life shouter nor screamer, but he sure inspires his teammates in numerous other ways.
Unsurprisingly, he’s become used to people fretting over whether his quiet, somewhat introverted, nature is ideally suited to captaining a topflight club.
But ‘King Mavotjie’ always has an answer for that question. An apt one for that matter.
“Talk is cheap, but when you go out there and prove it – you’re the first one to show up for training, and you’re the last to leave – that’s how you lead by example,” the Polokwane City skipper explains his charming philosophy.
Interestingly, his childhood friend, Tintswalo Tshabalala, is quick to admit he had reservations the first time Maluleke was appointed captain. The former Platinum Stars utility player, Tshabalala, has known the Soweto-born playmaker for over 30 years. The two were together at Chiawelo Arsenal, an amateur side in their neighbourhood in Soweto, after Maluleke surprisingly failed to make the grade at Orlando Pirates and Wits development sides.
“I was shocked the first time he was made captain. I asked myself how he would talk to everyone because he’s a man of a few words,” admits Tshabalala, who spent five seasons with Dikwena.
Rightly so, Maluleke is not built from the same mould as Itumeleng Khune or your typical Benson Mhlongo.
But his Polokwane City coach Clinton Larsen wouldn’t have it any other way. He is happy with him just walking the talk. Undeniably, the phrase ‘lead by example’ is tamely cliché but, in so many ways, Maluleke does.
Disciplined, loyal to the core, a consummate team leader, mentally strong and self-confident. He comes fortified with that inimitable blend of qualities.
For those who still wonder whether his nature precludes him from being an inspirational captain, a four-word answer further suffices: assist king par-excellence. Just last season, his sixth with Polokwane City, aged 37, he scored 4 goals and made 9 assists in 28 matches.
“Playing number 10 gives me freedom. I like to be in charge on the field of play,” says Maluleke, who started off his career as the traditional number 7.
Now 38, the man, arguably one of the PSL’s best passers of the ball, is fast etching his name in football’s old masters who managed to beat the clock and are still going strong despite making their debut in the early 2000s.
While at it – even at the tail end of his fourth decade – he is still one of the first names on the team sheet at ‘Rise and Shine’, a team he helped to a record fifth-place finish last season.
“He’s a different type of a leader. He’s got a calming effect on the team, never fazed by anything that’s going on. He’s always in control of the situation,” Larsen says.
And while getting in control of things, he is not the type to impose his personality on a team. Neither does he go all-out to be the dominant character in a group.
Which means, essentially, that he is a decent, grounded bloke who does not suffer from the megalomaniac tendencies that seem to grip so many modern soccer stars.
“He is a grounded young man. That, he’s always been. I’m a proud father because the same way he’s always respected me is exactly what I see him do with humility to other people,” his dad, Fannie Maluleke, says.
The first man to appoint him captain, Norman ‘Panga’ Mokwebo, who ran Chiawelo Arsenal in the late ’90s also couldn’t be bothered by his diffidence. In his eyes, he possesses several qualities that make him fit the bill for the captaincy.
“He was exemplary, disciplined, always punctual for training and very respectful,” Mokwebo says.
That is where he scores as a captain: he is ever setting the perfect example. Granted, he may not be vocal, but his actions shout out the instructions.
Beautifully so, there is an aura about him on the pitch and that is why Larsen stuck to him as skipper when he took over at City 6 months ago without any second thoughts.
“His discipline does the talking for him. His performances do the talking for him and it’s up to the rest of the squad to follow,” says Larsen, who has been coaching in the PSL for just over a decade.
Again, Maluleke has had quite the journey in football. He made his PSL debut back in the 2002/2003 season while in the books of Dynamos and went on to play for Black Leopards, SuperSport United and now City. After a massive 343 PSL appearances, he is still going strong.
Of course, it has not been all rosy. “My time with Dynamos was difficult, things didn’t work out but that’s football. I learnt a few important lessons,” says the lanky midfielder.
Jacob Sakala recalls the opposition he faced as he tried giving Maluleke a second shot at professional football after his botched stint with Dynamos. “I picked Jabu Maluleke from Chiawelo and took him to Dangerous Darkies. I then went with him to Black Leopards,” the veteran coach says.
At Leopards, the Limpopo club’s supremo David Thidiela was just not convinced, at least, at first sight. “I played the boy by force and assured Thidiela he would eventually see what I was seeing,” Sakala adds.
Straight after watching Maluleke, Sakala remembers how an impressed Thidiela gave him R100.
As his flair and artistry continued to set him apart in the topflight, Thidiela smiled to the bank after fetching R3 million from selling him to SuperSport United.
“Winning the League with SuperSport was such a huge thing for me. I’ll forever cherish that,” says Maluleke, who went on to win two back-to-back titles with Matsatsantsa in 2008/09 and 2009/10. He spent five seasons with the Tshwane side.
Still, the Polokwane City skipper isn’t quite ready to call time on his career and vows to rack up his club career appearances for a few more years. He has played over 184 matches for the Polokwane outfit across all competitions. “I’m fresh, I feel like a youngster. I still feel so strong, I haven’t even thought about retiring,” the midfield maestro declares.
The talented playmaker reveals he has not changed too many things over the course of his career. Perhaps he is simply “lucky with the genes”.
“As an 18-year-old going into the professional game, you don’t really think about one day becoming the ‘oldest player in the PSL’. All you can do is look after yourself,” Maluleke says, before politely requesting to end the 30-minute telephonic interview to go and do his personal training. Such is his self-mastery.
But his boon companion Tshabalala knows Maluleke’s magical formula for longevity.
“He’s so disciplined, and very focused, he won’t touch alcohol, he won’t smoke cigarettes and doesn’t go clubbing. He takes his fitness seriously,” says Tshabalala as he reiterates what everyone else says.
Interestingly, his own father never imagined he would make it beyond 35 when he first watched him at 16 while playing for Chiawelo Arsenal.
“I thought he would stop at about 35, but he keeps going. My friends used to tell me about his talent until I went to the Godfrey Moloi Goodwill Games with his mother to watch him. We overheard some boys saying his opponents had to kick him because he was too good. His mother wanted to reply them, but I told her to keep quiet,” Maluleke Senior recalls.
Larsen concludes his captain’s extraordinary fortitude is all thanks to discipline.
“It’s down to his lifestyle, how he carries himself off the field. He really looks after himself well, which is so important. If you want to give your career longevity you’ve got to look after yourself and Jabu is a great example to the young players,” Larsen says.
That’s Maluleke’s philosophy to the captaincy: no nonsense, no drama, no fuss and no entitlements. Just serving as the perfect example.
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By Mthokozisi Dube