Augusto Palacios knows poverty! He is, after all, a man who was born and bred in Peru.
Lima, the capital of Peru where he was born, was not a great place in the 1950s. In his early years, the city was gripped by mass migration into a city whose handful of resources could not keep up with the ever-increasing number of mouths to be fed.
It was a hard time, as the capital became increasingly ringed with squalid barriadas, squatter settlements that grew on the edges of a hungry and unsettled city.
Decades later and in a different country, a different continent, Palacios still remembers those hunger pangs and how growling stomach was sometimes the soundtrack of his night as he went to bed without so much as a crumb of food gracing his mouth.
“We stayed in what looked like an open hall, with a shared toilet in the middle in Peru,” the veteran coach tells FARPost.
He had invited FARPost to his academy where he spends most of his time after leaving Orlando Pirates earlier this year.
Every Tuesday at the Arthur Bloch Park in Mayfair, west of the Johannesburg CBD, he sits with his seven disciples of the game.
That meeting happens – come rain, come sunshine – and the man nicknamed ‘Professor’ pours out into his academy coaches meticulously.
The 69-year-old imparts onto them his over 50 years’ experience in the game without holding back anything.
Looking through that meeting room, none of his students were born when Palacios was a member of the Peruvian junior national team that finished third in the South America Junior Cup Asuncion in 1970.
Straight after that hour-long technical meeting, we take a walk across the fields where, at least, 500 young South Africans take turns to hone their fledgling skills.
“I grew up in a very poor set up, I knew what it meant to sleep hungry,” he says with such emphasis.
He has come a long way from that house of hunger in Lima. For almost two decades, he was at the helm of development at Orlando Pirates, unearthing and polishing up some of the most brilliant gems to grace Mzansi football arenas.
Some might wonder how a man from Lima, Peru has been able to identify and connect so deeply with some of South Africa’s young football talent.
Perhaps because hunger is the same in Soweto or Lima, he has been able to connect with young people who come from circumstances that are not so different from his.
“I see the potential in these boys. My passion for these boys is to give back to them,” says Palacios.
“I do what I do because I love these boys, I want them to have a bright future. I’m honoured to have given a chance to boys that came from poor backgrounds.
“It gives me joy when I see their lives turn around because of football,” the fatherly mentor says, adding that he shed a tear when Lyle Foster moved overseas, to join French side, Monaco.
Foster came through his academy before he joined Orlando Pirates in 2017. Having come to South Africa in the bad days of the 80s, the Peruvian has seen it all.
He saw the heavy handedness of apartheid, a system that did not respect people or their talent but judged them solely on the colour of their skin.
He was there when the country transitioned to democracy under the late statesman Nelson Mandela, with dreams of a better future for black people in a more open society.
He has seen, for 27 years, that the old ills did not completely die with the birth of a rainbow nation, and it is those ills, poverty and inequality, that makes him an invaluable mentor to every crop of young players he takes charge of.
“I met an agent in Costa Rica [Marcelo Houseman] in 1979, we kept in contact. In November 1984, he called me and said there was an invitation from a South African club Witbank Aces to play in an exhibition game.
“He was lying to me. It was actually a friendly match. He sent me the ticket and the plan was that I would spend 10 days there,” he recalls.
What was meant to be 10 days has turned into over three decades. Of course, after that short stint he went away briefly.
“In January 1985, I came with my family. Apartheid was at its worst,” he recalls.
He left a year later and returned in 1988 to coach Aces and then Kaizer Chiefs in 1990.
Born into heart-breaking poverty, Palacios, who played his football in five continents, has never managed to fully escape it.
As a development coach, he comes into close contact with it quite regularly. Many of the youngsters under his tutelage coming from grinding poverty wake up in similar squalid houses he grew up in and harbour the same dreams that he had all those years as a young buck back in Peru.
“I come from Meadowlands and I’m here because I want to change the lives of my family,” Tshepiso Dube, a player at Palacios’ academy, tells FARPost.
It is the tale of countless others that FARPost interacts with. Palacios is acutely aware of the unfortunate circumstances some of his players come from.
In the football world, the role of development cannot be overemphasised. There has been a growing realisation over the years that the best time to mould players is when they are still young, when they are malleable enough to be taught new tricks.
While a lot of coaches might dedicate a lot of time into fine-tuning players technically, the former Peru national team midfielder has placed an emphasis on shaping their lives away from the football pitch.
“You don’t only talk to a player about football, you need to understand who they are and where they come from,” he stresses.
Half of the children in South Africa grow up in fatherless households and consequently few players that come under his watchful eye have a father figure in their lives.
Key to the rapport he enjoys with players is his ability to play a fatherly role in their lives. “He was a father figure, he still is a father figure to me. He supported me in my football and education,” Lebogang ‘Cheeseboy’ Mokoena tells FARPost.
A luminary of Kosta Papic’s pulsating Buccaneers side, Mokoena, remembers the day he lost his mom in 2008. Palacios was the first person to arrive at his home. He was there throughout the procession just to offer him a shoulder to lean on.
“What Palacios does is extremely important because we have players with no parents, but I was fortunate I had my mom. With others it’s not the same and once the coach gets to know the player better family-wise, they will understand what makes him tick and just how to get the best out of him.
“Sometimes we come from poor backgrounds, and we need to be guided when the money starts coming in,” says Mokoena who also had a stint with Mamelodi Sundowns and he’s now with Swallows FC.
Palacios’ ability, however, to create a bond with his charges has seen him give birth to entire generations of superstars ready to put their very lives on the line for him.
“He did things most coaches never do,” former Buccaneers stalwart Edelbert Dinha also tells FARPost.
“He wanted to know what you eat, are you sleeping enough, is your relationship or marriage okay. When you have that kind of coach you want to die for him.”
In a country that can be obsessed with quick results, the 1980 Costa Rica Best Foreigner player [while with Deportivo Cartagines] has been one of the few coaches to defy trends and take a chance on youth, throwing countless young players into the deep end as his counterparts played it safe, going for the tried and tested.
“I struggled for game time in my early years at Chiefs until Palacios took over. A lot of youngsters at the time like myself, Doctor Khumalo and Fani Madida flourished under him,” yesteryear Amakhosi star Abel Shongwe tells FARPost.
With Palacios at the helm, Chiefs’ crosstown rivals Pirates became a reliable conveyor belt of promising South African talent, producing players that not only donned the skull and crossbones with distinction but made it into Bafana ranks as well.
At the turn of the century, he oversaw the promotion of academy graduates like Swallows captain Mokoena‚ Benedict ‘Tso’ Vilakazi‚ the late Gift ‘Continental’ Leremi‚ Joseph ‘Duku-Duku’ Makhanya and Kelebogile Mabe who went on to become household names.
It is this trust and confidence that he has in young players under his care that has seen them prosper, as they are eager to repay a mentor who convinces them that they can be world beaters even at a tender age.
After a life dedicated to the beautiful game, few can doubt that football is his one true love. 32 years after he came to permanently settle in Mzansi, the Professor is not afraid to admit that the game is his staple diet.
“I eat football, breakfast football, lunch football and supper football.” He is prepared to die moulding the next generation and jokingly says, if need be, he will use the aide of a walking stick just to continue churning out top talents!
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By Mthokozisi Dube