When you listen to Reneilwe ‘Yeye’ Letsholonyane share his football journey, it’s as though everything he ever did was leading up to the moment he put pen to paper at Kaizer Chiefs.
Growing up in a not so well up family, soft-life was a farfetched idea. “He had a tough childhood, they were a lot at home in a two-roomed house. He knew he was not doing it for himself but his family and his community,” his childhood friend Kgori ‘Dinho’ Mokoro tells FARPost.
Right there in White City, Soweto, developing a passion for football was just inevitable. Of course, earlier on it was never with the oval shaped synthetic ball that needed one to fork out money to buy.
Either it was a plastic ball or the cheaper, but smaller tennis ball juggled passionately in the dusty streets of White City. “The older boys used to juggle a tennis ball ekasi and I would often join them,” Letsholonyane tells FARPost.
His first taste of club football as a fledgling teenager came through Kagisano Masters in White City. At 15, in the late 90s, he took his talent to CelTash before his family’s relocated to Meadowlands from White City.
Full of hope, he joined Jomo Cosmos’ development side, only to quit after three years citing lack of progress. “I watched as others were being promoted and nothing was happening. So I decided to leave,” the soft-spoken ace says.
A stint with Dangerous Darkies then followed, but that would only last for six months after the owners sold it.
Thereafter, it was a young hiatus from football. Some deep introspection had to be done. Did he really want to play this game after the ‘many’ hiccups?
“I was going through emotions not sure if I wanted to continue. I was tired of trying too hard,” recalls the Soweto-born star. Eventually, he joined Meadowlands Porto because it was a new team ekasi on the same street as his school. The bulk of the players were coming from his school.
“Porto was a new team, same street where I was schooling [Kelokitso High in Meadowlands] so they approached me. I thought ‘why not’ since most of their players came from my neighbourhood and I enjoyed playing football,” explains the dreadlocked star.
Prominent radio DJ, Glen Lewis met him later when he was playing for PJ Stars, approaching his mid-20s. One thing was apparent to him – Yeye had an unfulfilled dream! It wasn’t enough that he was playing in the Mvela League [NFD].
The dream was birthed after years of watching the Phefeni Glamour Boys with intense admiration. It was not just their style of play nor results on the pitch that caught his eye during those good ol’ days.
Abafana Bok’thula Noxolo, he says, were trendsetters. They were simply role models in everything, especially when it came to clothes and style. They were glamorous. Glitzy, stylish and dazzling like film stars perhaps.
“They had so much swag. Their jersey was the most colourful and when they played it looked like they did it effortlessly. But they were working hard,” explains the talented former midfielder.
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So was his dear departed friend John ‘Shoes’ Moshoeu – the midfield maestro who painlessly stole South African hearts.
At the back of his mind, young Letsholonyane also wanted to don that famous gold and black strip with pride and the passion it deserved.
“When I met him he was at PJ Stars. It so happened that we got a deal at Cosmos. Like anyone else, he wanted to reach certain levels. What I knew in my heart was that he wanted to go to Chiefs. He never wanted to go to Orlando Pirates,” Lewis tells FARPost.
Interestingly, the Cosmos reunion in 2006 came after PJ Stars eliminated Ezenkosi in the Absa Cup before facing Pirates in the second round, going down 2-0 to the Buccaneers.
Eventually joining the Jomo Sono-coached side and enjoying game time was sheer proof that his dream was achievable after all.
However, like any other dream, it would be a while before it came true. After an exceptional run in Ezenkosi colours for two seasons, Lewis remembers how he caught the interest of Pirates and Mamelodi Sundowns.
“I used to call Bobby [Motaung], saying there’s this player Yeye, but because everyone knows me as a DJ, they all ignored me. So, fortunately I got a call from Roger De Sa.
“We arranged a meeting at Eastgate Shopping Centre. Wits made a good offer for him, but I didn’t want us to sign immediately. I said I needed to speak to his parents,” Lewis, who hosts The Glenzito Superdrive on Radio2000, recalls.
Letsholonyane remembers getting a phone call from Motaung shortly before finalising the Wits deal.
“On the day I was to sign the Wits contract I remember getting a call from ‘Bobsteak’. I couldn’t believe it,” Letsholonyane says.
The game had totally changed.
Wits could wait. And so, their next port of call was Naturena where Amakhosi tabled a three-year deal.
There was no pondering to do. The Amakhosi enthusiast in him was sold. “When people say God’s timing is perfect, they refer to such things. Once the Chiefs offer was made, I made it clear I’d not even need to go home to think about it. My mind was made up, these [Chiefs] people had taken too long to come,” he says.
Mokoro adds that his friend was never interested in playing for either Sundowns or Pirates. It was never about playing for any big team. The heart was captivated by his undying love for Amakhosi.
“He said ‘I’ve been waiting for these people’ referring to Chiefs. He didn’t want to go to Pirates or Sundowns. I think he looked at the position he played and loved Chiefs’ identity. He felt he would enjoy his football at Chiefs,” he says, adding that younger Letsholonyane would sometimes cry when the Soweto giants lost.
As expected, the man had his best years at Naturena where he spent eight of his 15 years of professional football.
He amassed nearly 200 appearances during his trophy-laden spell with Chiefs. His trophy haul included two League titles, two MTN 8 titles, two Telkom Knockout titles and the Nedbank Cup.
“I knew the previous generations [of Chiefs] were not called Glamour Boys for nothing. They lived what the chairman lives for – making fans happy. We also did it while having fun,” he says.
While enjoying his football at Amakhosi, the Meadowlands-raised maestro had another dream to accomplish. He wanted to play for Bafana Bafana at the 2010 Fifa World Cup. But again, the odds were heavily stacked against him.
“In 2009 while watching a [Fifa] Confederations Cup game, he said ‘I see my place here in the Bafana team’. He was actually nursing an injury at the time and it sounded like a joke.
“Once he recovered from that injury, he started working hard towards his dream. I remember him telling Arthur [Zwane] that he’s going to the World Cup.
“In his first four games after his return from injury, he was named man-of-the-match and a national team call up followed,” Mokoro adds.
The revered box-to-box midfielder went on to become an established international and won 54 caps for Bafana Bafana, with whom he also took part in the 2010 World Cup on home soil.
“He actually predicted all these things that happened in his career. He used to say he would play for Chiefs and the national team at the 2010 World Cup. He lived his dream,” Lizo Mjempu, his ex-Cosmos teammate, confirms.
Those that had known of his Chiefs fantasy like Mokoro and Mjempu, were never prepared for the tail end of that spell.
In fact, Mokoro shed a tear when the Amakhosi faithful gave him a standing ovation after the club indicated they would not renew his contract.
That day was 21 May 2016 and Chiefs were playing Chippa United at FNB Stadium. “I was the emotional one, he knows I was a bit teary when they substituted him in that game. That moment was so precious, players running to him and supporters cheering him,” Mokoro says.
Naturena had been home for a good eight years. Parting with the club was dang hard, he admits.
DID YOU KNOW?
Letsholonyane scored 22 career league goals for Chiefs. Shoes Moshoeu (23 goals) is the only midfielder to score more league goals for Chiefs in the 30-game PSL era (2002+).
“It was very emotional for me. This was the place I called home and was so comfortable. I knew the ins and outs and I knew every corner. Moving away from that place was very difficult,” the former Bafana star concedes.
Luckily, he was reuniting with a familiar face at his next club SuperSport United ahead of the 2016/17 Premiership season. Stuart Baxter, the man he enjoyed League success under at Naturena, was now in charge of Matsatsantsa.
He added the MTN8 and Nedbank Cup winners’ medals to his cabinet with the Pretoria side. Even after he left Chiefs, his former Highlands Park and TS Galaxy teammate Mlungisi Mbunjana remembers how he would often reminisce on that spell.
“He spoke about his time at Chiefs,” Mbunjana tells FARPost. Now that he has hung his boots after a swansong stint with Galaxy, the 39-year-old is dreaming yet again.
This time, the Caf-C license holder does so with the aptitude of understanding the dynamics of the game. Perhaps, just perhaps, he will emerge in the dugout once his coaching badges are all in place!
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By Mthokozisi Dube