Dumisani Ntombela: The blind coach who senses, feels and imagines the game

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I bet you’ve never paid attention to the shuffle of football players’ feet as they run tirelessly for 90 minutes on the pitch.

You’ve probably never bothered to listen to the sound of the ball each time it’s kicked to the next teammate. Nor the screams of the players as they call for the ball and warn their teammates of a ‘man-on’.

Or even cared about the sound indicative of the pace of the movement of the ball. Totally understandable!

All these sounds which often go unobserved by football fans are what Dumisani Ntombela needs to coach his players. He listens! He senses! Then he imagines in the most miraculous way.

“I listen, sense and see the whole image in front of me on the ground. The image flashes in my mind as though God shows me the whole picture. I am able to make decisions out of that,” Ntombela tells FARPost.

The 32-year-old coach from Vosloorus, a large township situated in the South of Boksburg in Ekurhuleni, was born with a condition called Retinoblastoma. At the age of one [1], it was discovered he had cancer of the retina – the eye’s light-sensitive tissue.

Apparently, this most common childhood eye cancer usually strikes children under age five. In nearly a third of the cases, retinoblastoma occurs in both eyes. “I had a tumour in both eyes, so I had to be operated on and they took off both my eyes,” he explains.

The eye area is covered up with skin grafts. And so, growing up, he had to endure so much adversity as a result of his condition. He was harassed and beaten. Unkindly called spoko [ghost] by his peers.

The community that should have shielded him from abuse, unashamedly shunned him! Such was his childhood.

“People were scared of me, they said I was possessed by a demon. They told my parents to take me to a place far away because I will infect the other children with my condition. My parents were always crying; nobody wanted me around them,” sadly adds Ntombela.

Things got nastier one day, he says, when one of the neighbours instructed her children to deliberately harm him in an effort to discourage him from playing with the neighbourhood children.

They pushed him into a razor wire, injuring him in the process. The injuries he sustained from that encounter angered his pop. Just like any other father would do, his dad took matters into his own hands and assaulted the children who had bruised his son. The neighbour reported him to the police and he was given a five-year suspended sentence.

“My dad left this world in 2016, three years after my mother, with a criminal record because of my disability,” he says clearly aggrieved.

Amidst the persecution, he soon realised that his blindness was, in actual fact, his genius. He was blind yet he had vision.

His incredible story is a sheer show of the beauty of football! You don’t have to see it to love it!

“My love for football is something that came to my mind when there was no one pushing me to fall in love with it. It’s something that happened naturally – on its own,” he explains his affinity with the world’s most beautiful game.

A family member, Phindile Ntombela, tells FARPost that his passion for the game started at the age of eight.

“They would put a plastic bag over the ball so that the sound of its movement would be more audible for him,” Phindile recalls.

Aged 10, Phindile remembers how he began to gather kids in Vosloorus Ext 26 to coach them. “Some of those kids were older than him,” she adds.

He further explains that he started the team Silver Spears after realising playing was difficult. “My parents bought a kit from a guy called Fanyana Ngubeni. It was 11 jerseys and shorts. That’s how the team started.”

It would seem those early years were used to refine his senses and craft. His first port of call was the LFA in Vosloorus where his boys’ team were crowned back-to-back champions in 1999 and 2000.

In 2001, they won the East Rand Football League. But the next couple of years, the team would struggle financially, only bouncing back to winning ways in 2007.

“In 2010, I realised there were a number of young girls loitering in the streets, drinking beer and taking drugs, including indulging in sex resulting in teenage pregnancies in my community.

“There was also gender based violence and women were being abused in many other ways. So, with the support of my parents, I started a team for women in 2011. For four years, the team could not win titles,” says the man nicknamed Jose Mourinho.

He has not forgotten how painfully they crashed out of the Maimane Phiri Tournament in 2014 and that promise he made to the former Jomo Cosmos, SuperSport United and Moroka Swallows midfielder that the following year’s edition was his.

In a bid to rebuild his team, he went on a scouting excursion in the Vaal and in Bloemfontein, among other places.

“I realised nothing was working out so in 2015 I decided to start afresh. I looked for players in different towns and I brought them to my parents’ home. They stayed with us,” explains the talented mentor who holds a SAFA D-License.

Lerato Lepheane, who previously captained his side, narrates how shocked she was the first time she was introduced to her coach.

“I wondered how he would coach us because he couldn’t see. But I soon realised that the man was so talented. He knows the game too well,” the midfielder nicknamed ‘Zidane’ after the French legend tells FARPost.

His move paid dividends as the team were crowned champions of the Ekurhuleni Women’s League without tasting defeat or a draw. They went on to win the Maimane Alfred Phiri tournament in style.

“I remember that he got one over Sammy Modiba of Alex Ladies. His team won 3-1 in a penalty shootout. It gives me joy to see what that victory meant for him,” Phiri tells FARPost.

Interestingly, the astute mentor, who has won over 16 trophies, singles out 2015 as his best year.

“2015 was actually my best year. I won the League without a draw or loss, we went to playoffs for Sasol and won,” he says with pride.

The most incredible thing I’ve ever heard from an interview is how he read the final before making impactful substitutions.

“In the Maimane Phiri final, I sensed that one player was a bit too slow and I needed someone with pace to add to the firepower, and it worked for me as I got an equalising goal soon afterwards from that very substitute.

“When it was time for the penalty shootouts, the players wanted us to change goalkeepers, but I insisted on the one who had played. She saved four penalties on the day.

“I cannot tell you either how I do it, but I want to believe there is also God’s hand at play in this whole coaching thing of my career,” says Ntombela.

The following year – 2016 – came bitter disappointment as he lost his dad. It meant using his disability grant of about R2000 to sustain the team.

With hiring a ground costing R1160, R250 for referee’s fees and a few hundred for transport, it became unsustainable.

With a sore heart, he had to ask the girls to find other clubs as the money had run dry. “I ended up losing the whole work I built,” he says bitterly.

It was equally heart-breaking for the players. “We had built something really awesome and we were winning everything and enjoying ourselves. We were a closely-knit family,” says Lepheane, who now turns out for TUT in the Hollywoodbets Super League.

His assistant coach Lehlohonolo Nojoko, pictured below, says there was no way he could bid farewell to football after that setback. So, he set his sights on training youngsters, a project that did not require as much money.

“From Under 11 to Under 17, he mentions all the players by name, he knows their abilities one by one and their strengths,” Nojoko tells FARPost.

His niece, Sibongile Ntombela, reveals that he developed the knack for identifying people through their voices and, sometimes, their signature odour.

On a good day, Sibongile says, “he prepares the best coffee all by himself.” “He can do his laundry, he can advise you on serious life issues. He can go to the shops and buy himself what he wants,” she tells FARPost.

During his spare time, Ntombela watches a lot of football, picking Italy’s Juventus, Manchester City in England and Barcelona in Spain as his favourite football clubs.

He dreams of guiding a Hollywoodbets Super League team and is convinced he has what it takes to win it. The man just lives to defy human sense!

RELATED STORY: Tumelo Mogale: Lessons from a man who made his PSL debut at 32

By Mthokozisi Dube