There’s always two ways to learn a thing in life. It’s either the normal or the harder way. Thabo Matlaba learnt how to use his left foot the harder way.
Celebrated former Orlando Pirates forward Jerry Sikhosana taught him the tougher way.
Routine was that Matlaba and his twin brother, Mpho, would take the train home together after their lessons at Sizwe Secondary School in Germiston.
The little money they had would finish at the train and so when it was time to go and play football anyone who was interested would have to take the long walk.
As soon as they dumped their school bags on the bed, all that was on Thabo’s mind was football. He would quickly dash out to take the long walk to Metlhareng from Phomolong.
Of course, they both had the skills to play football, but Mpho did not have the heart to walk that almost 7km distance. So they would separate when it was diski time.
“My twin brother was actually a gifted footballer, but he was never keen on playing the game,” Matlaba, whose correct surname is Matlhaba, tells FARPost. He is quick to explain that their surname was misspelt on their father’s ID.
“It was an error done on our dad’s ID so we adopted it as is,” he says.
So, senior Matlaba – Kalubi Hezekiel – who Sikhosana esteemed as a talented footballer, once invited ‘Legs of Thunder’ to come and watch a game.
The two took a walk to Ecaleni Section’s ground right in the heart of Tembisa. For Sikhosana, who loved watching young boys play ekasi, it was just another game of football, but senior Matlaba had a motive. He wanted to proudly show off his talented son.
“I remember his father came to me and invited me to come and watch a game. They were playing in one of the township tournaments in Tembisa at Ecaleni Section.
“We watched the game and afterwards he asked me which player stood out for me and I picked a boy who had played centre-back,” recalls 51-year-old Sikhosana.
“He said to me ‘that’s my son’.”
The boy was fast carving his name as a central defender. And that was the first time Sikhosana, who was part of that trailblazing Bucs’ class of ’95, saw this talented centre-back who was comfortable on the ball and could easily play out the ball from the back.
He was playing for Mighty Tigers at the time, having started his football career with Leicester City from Phomolong. “I started playing for Leicester at the age of 13 and left when I was 19,” Matlaba says.
Besides slotting in comfortably in the heart of defence, he was equally at ease being deployed in defensive midfield, every so often pulling the strings in the engine room.
So, his ‘meeting’ with Sikhosana came just when Mighty Tigers were on the verge of moving to the Free State.
It was easy for him to follow his dad’s friend who had been impressed by his talent. Dad would be happier knowing his son was under the stewardship of a man who made a name for himself at the Buccaneers.
Just days after that encounter, Matlaba found himself at another M-Tigers, this time Mahlangu Tigers under the tutelage of Sikhosana.
Having grown up in Tembisa, he knew who Sikhosana was and what he had achieved.
Naturally, he was excited to refine his defending abilities under a man renowned for harassing defenders on the field of play. It all made sense after all.
But there was a problem. It was quite a massive challenge. Sikhosana had four experienced centre-backs, he was also happy with his right-back options as well. In essence, there was no place for him in the team.
“We had enough centre-backs in the team, but there was no left-back so I wanted him to play there,” Sikhosana says.
Matlaba had never played left-back nor was he left-footed. In fact, he had never imagined himself playing on the left side of defence, yet he was being asked to slot in there.
How would he say no to a man he admired so much? A man dad respected so much. Being a lover of the game also, there was no way he would turn down the request. So, he took the challenge by the scruff of its neck. It meant he had to learn to use his weaker left foot.
“You could tell he was quality, but I had to force him to use his left foot. I’d tell him to take free kicks with his left,” Sikhosana proudly recalls.
Here was a man, who was past his teenage years being taught to use his weaker foot. He was 21 at the time when this awkward journey started.
At training, Matlaba was the only player disallowed from using both feet. Each time he touched the ball with his right, a foul would be awarded to the opposite team.
“Ha, ha, ha it would be a foul to the other team if ever I touched the ball with my right foot. That’s what helped me learn fast to use my left foot,” he says with gratitude.
Matlaba grew into his new role, Sikhosana says, to a point that he ended up attracting the interest of Themba Mafu, pictured below, at Witbank Spurs.
An invite for a trial came and when he got to Mpumalanga, his mind was already accustomed to left-back. It would take someone who either knew him from the past to realise he was playing on the ‘wrong side’.
Local agent Abbie Rasimphi spotted Matlaba while he was attending the Spurs trial.
“The trials were in Witbank and he was wearing a Pirates tracksuit when I first saw him. I sent Albert Kometsi (former Witbank Spurs player) to get me Thabo’s phone number,” Rasimphi says.
Upon getting the phone number, he called him and told him not to go to Spurs, who were in the NFD, as he deserved to play in the PSL.
And so, Rasimphi took him to Gavin Hunt at SuperSport.
“Gavin Hunt gave him five minutes on the field and said ‘he’s not a good player’.”
He tried his luck at Orlando Pirates, Ruud Krol was under pressure and couldn’t take a gamble with a Vodacom League player.
So, the agreement between Rasimphi and Pirates official Floyd Mbele was that he should find the boy a club elsewhere. The Buccaneers would then consider him if he was as good as he was being portrayed.
Of course, his career would be derailed after he got burnt when he was close to signing for Spurs.
“I got burnt on my right foot and for over two months I was frequenting the hospital for treatment. I never thought I’d be able to play again,” he admits.
After recovering from the burns, he was back playing. Spurs a bit out of the picture. He had to focus on M-Tigers. There were no qualms about his playing position. He was getting comfortable at left back by the day.
‘Festival’, as he was affectionately known, was spotted by Steve Komphela, then at Free State Stars during a Nedbank Cup match between Black Leopards and M-Tigers.
Interestingly, around the same time, Spurs called him to Witbank.
“I actually did travel to Witbank and I was very close to signing a contract when Free State Stars called. I had to lie and say I needed to attend to something when I got the call from Free State. That’s how I left to go and sign for Free State Stars,” he says.
Rantsi Mokoena, Stars’ general manager, recalls seeing this boy arrive at Ea Lla Koto.
“He was a small, scrawny little guy. We insisted let’s see him, and the kid was unbelievable,” Mokoena tells FARPost.
After trials at Bethlehem club in 2010, the hard-running defender started his professional career against Santos. He would only spend 18 months in Bethlehem before that confusing call came in. Matlaba was in a festive mood back home in Gauteng when the late Mike Mokoena (chairman of Free State Stars) called him.
“He told me to stay in Gauteng and not come back to Free State after the December holidays. It never made sense at all,” Matlaba says.
But the boss had spoken, he just had to oblige. It turned out he had been sold to Pirates, the club he grew up supporting. It was a dream come true. So, in January 2012, he joined the Soweto giants.
“I was told to go and meet Ntate Irvin Khoza, which I did and I eventually moved to Pirates.”
It would be a roller-coaster seven-and-a-half years for skull and crossbones. The 33-year-old does not have to think twice when asked where he enjoyed his football the most.
His first taste of success would come exactly six months after joining the club. They won the league title.
In 2014, he was back again on the winner’s podium after they won the Nedbank Cup.
One of his biggest memories is the immaculate run they had in the 2013 Caf Champions League as they finished as runners up, before a similar finish in the Caf Confederation Cup two years later.
“I enjoyed my time at Pirates, I think we had a good team,” the former Bucs captain says.
His infamous left back switch also earned him a cool 26 national team caps.
“It’s every footballer’s dream to represent their country. I’m glad I got the opportunity,” says the father of three.
In 2019/20, Matlaba played his football for Black Leopards before requesting to be released to join Swallows FC.
“I’m enjoying my time at Swallows, we are a praying team. Every Tuesday and Thursday we take turns to encourage one another and also pray,” says Matlaba.
He remains grateful for that life-changing switch that he credits for an incredible football career. Who knows what would have happened, had he stayed at centre-back?
RELATED STORY: Jerry Sikhosana’s heart-breaking story
By Mthokozisi Dube