Rejected as a teenager, but flourishing in far-flung Denmark: The story of Gift Links

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We’re right in the heart of the platinum country – Rustenburg – to meet the diminutive ‘big man’ Gift Links!

If you’ve interacted with Links in one way or another you’ll know how often he refers to everyone as ‘big man’ with his high pitched voice. Even when he texts.

When he comes to meet the FARPost team, his dad, Jacob Maine, drops him off by Howick Street, some 500m from the Waterfall Mall.

His unassuming dad greets us with all humility. It is clear where his son has learnt that great deal of respect, politeness and modesty.

So, instead of driving in our car to the mall, he suggests we take a walk to the Steak Out Grills restaurant by Waterfall Mall where we’ve agreed to munch on fine morsels of food as he shares his incredible journey.

After about 100m, conversation is already flowing, the man is super comfortable with us. He drops the best kept secret. He tells us with the utmost genuineness.

“I’ve got a girlfriend now,” he says.

The immediate question is: is she Danish? “Yes,” he replies, “her dad is actually a club legend.”

Turns out the man from Kanana scored a cracker of a goal against Brondby [7 December 2020] and then scored a beauty straight after that game. No doubt, he was on fire, as he added an assist, in that Superliga game that ended 3-1.

“I scored a beautiful goal and after the game I met her and she said I’d played well,” he adds with a smile.

Of course, it would be a couple of months before he started dating Camilla. And now, it’s so apparent that he is smitten.

That revelation sets the tone for our conversation. We exchange our ‘mjolo, the pandemic’ know-hows and joke around about stocko sa lekgowa.

As we walk into the restaurant, he is still as self-effacing as ever, greeting staff with the deserved reverence. No doubt, he respects the dignity and worth of everyone he comes across.

As soon as we’re settled, he peruses through the menu and quips, “meat is really expensive in Denmark”. He is obviously comparing with the prices here.

His will be T-bone with chips, creamed spinach and butternut at the cost of R149. He reiterates he would have paid double back in Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city located approximately 187 kilometres northwest of Copenhagen where his fellow countryman Sibusiso Zuma enjoys cult hero status.

Clearly, the man is a lover of meat. Maybe it’s because as a youngster he was rejected several times because ‘he had no meat’. Naysayers told him he wouldn’t make it because of his frail physique.

“I’ve been told that I won’t make it because I was too tiny,” he tells FARPost.

The pint-sized winger, however, keeps proving that writing off a youngster because of their tiny body frame is as senseless as rejecting a footballer because their eyes are too blue or their hair too curly. The stupidity beggars belief.

Links’ football talent was apparent from as young as seven when he was selected for coaching clinics in Rustenburg.

Prominent youth coach Sam Mbatha scouted him while playing for Kana Primary School. “My journey started in 2007 when I was scouted at school. Sam Mbatha came to Kana Primary and picked a number of us. We used to play every weekend,” he explains.

Mike Mabule, whose most recent stint was with Cape Umoya, and Polokwane City’s Charles Baloyi were also part of that group.

In 2010, they were assured that they would be part of 20 kids who would kick-start the Platinum Stars academy.

“We went to the trials knowing we were already in,” he adds. Cavin Johnson remembers that group of boys who were pioneers of the now defunct academy.

“I saw Gift Links when he was a 10-year-old. Kobamelo [Kodisang] and Sbu Mabiliso also came from the same community,” the Al Ahly assistant coach tells FARPost.

But there was a slight challenge, Links was an equally good athlete. At provincial level, no one could touch him in the 1500m race.

On the football pitch, former West Ham midfielder and ex-Platinum Stars coach Peter James Butler tells FARPost, “Gift glided past opponents”.

“I was good at athletics. In 2013, things were getting complicated because both training sessions were at the same time. I had to make a decision.

“At provincial level I’d beat them. I finished seventh in the nationals held in Limpopo,” Links says.

But knowing football could easily change his life, he chose to pursue football. Little did he know, however, that he would be written off because of his body size.

At just 45 kgs, he was seen as a lightweight, not fit enough to play football. “I fell in love with soccer more than athletics and knew it could change my life quicker,” he says.

Sadly for him, the boys he had been picked with to join the academy – Baloyi and Kodisang got promoted way before him.

In fact, he reveals that when his mates were moving from SAB to play MDC, his name was initially on the list, only to be told he was not ready.

That year, the partnership with Thembelani Matlawe and Kodisang had produced an unassailable 100 goals.

“Charles and Kodisang got promoted to the senior team. I was okay with it. When I saw Kodisang promoted I knew my turn would come. Those people who wrote me off because I was small now want to act like they were there for me. No, they weren’t,” he says emphatically.

But Links being Links, he was not about to give up on his lifelong passion. “When you tell me I can’t do something, I make sure I do it just to prove you wrong.”

Luckily, there was a tournament around that time in Luka that drew teams from around Rustenburg. “I killed it,” he says as if to stress that he had proven the doubting Thomases wrong. “I won player of the tournament.”

The accolade was, no doubt, undebatable especially after scoring 16 goals in five games. Thereafter, his promotion followed. Cavin Johnson believed in the boy. His weight didn’t matter a bit to him.

“What does size matter? Have you seen how small (Sergio) Aguero is? The best striker in the world! Gift was very good, he could read the game, he had a good left foot and a good personality,” says Johnson, who handed 17-year-old Links his debut against Baroka FC in Limpopo.

Links vividly remembers how it all happened. He was coming from school to train with other academy boys when he was told Johnson wanted him in the first team. He was doing his matric at the time.

“I was from school and I was told Coach Cavin wanted me in the first team. A letter was sent to school that said I’d be away for the whole week. We played Baroka and then went to Mozambique [to play UD Songo].

“I didn’t play in Mozambique but Coach Cavin promised to play me against Sundowns. In that game against Sundowns, I had a shot on target but Denis Onyango saved it.”

The teenage winger played 17 games – 12 in the PSL, and five in the Caf Confederation Cup.

Just when his senior team career was taking flight, Baloyi and Robert Ng’ambi sandwiched his ankle. “I was out for three months.”

Roger de Sa took over the Platinum Stars hot seat and brought his own set of players. It was time to try his luck elsewhere for the teenage starlet. His agent told him Maritzburg United were keen.

“I went to Maritzburg and they wanted to sign me. I spent a week there and my agent called telling me to go back home. I’m told they said I’m small.”

Again, he took it on the chin and bounced back. This time, he left the lifeless mountains of Rustenburg to the famous magical ancient structures in North Africa. But his move came with a demand – Alassiouty SC had to take his Namibian teammate Benson Shilongo as well.

He was reluctant to move alone. After six months of playing week in, week out in the Egyptian Premier League, the club was sold to new owners.

John Comitis came to his rescue when the new owners, who renamed the club Pyramids, wanted to loan him out, paying US$100,000 [R1,3 million at the time] to bring him to Cape Town City.

His full season at City under Benni McCarthy yielded five goals and the MTN8 Cup, earning him a move to Europe.

Denmark’s Superliga club Aarhus Gymnastikforening paid €800,000 [R13,4 million at the exchange rate then], on the last day of the August transfer window of 2019.

By age 20, the speed merchant, who was named City’s most improved player, had racked up almost €1 million [R16.6 million] in combined transfer fees.

Interestingly, upon arrival in the Scandinavian country, his coach David Nielsen said he was “small but very strong on the ball”.

“He said I have that speed on the ball they are looking for.” Of course, it took him a while to hit top gear as he adapted to the cold winds of Aarhus that bite with some venom.

“It was too cold and I couldn’t even train. They didn’t play me much and they didn’t want me to go to Afcon.”

In his second season, Links turned on the heat. He played 19 League games, scoring four goals and adding four assists.

When we’re done eating dinner, the vegetables can be seen in the plate, but the steak has disappeared.

All talk of football is swept off the table. The first born in a family of four insists he is not into cars, but wants to invest in property.

The four-time Bafana Bafana capped star has already bought his parents a home in Sunrise View. He plans to ‘make hay while the sun shines’ by purchasing more properties particularly in Cape Town.

Luckily, his height is no longer a handicap, the sky no longer the limit. Gift Links is setting the Danish Superliga alight with his blistering pace!

RELATED STORY: Sibusiso Zuma: The Zulu king who reigns in Copenhagen

By Mthokozisi Dube 

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