Pitso Mokoena is a man with an eye for talent!
And so, in November 2012, he embarked on that fulfilling, but taxing exercise. It had become an annual routine.
Like any other scout, he knew in the scouting game it is hits or misses. As the day started at 8am with boys from areas surrounding Virginia tussling it out for places at the Harmony Academy, his expectations were well controlled.
You had boys from Welkom, Allanridge, Hennenman, Odendaalsrus, Ventersburg, Meloding and Bethlehem.
The Harmony Academy grounds, located on the goldfields of the Free State province, were teeming with multitudes of youngsters all entertaining hopes of making the grade.
Sipho Mbule was one of those that had travelled for two hours from Bethlehem to try his luck. “I knew about Harmony Academy from a few guys who had moved there from my school – Mtsu Secondary School. I envied the academy players so much and wanted to go there as well.
“Harmony first noticed me playing in the Copa Coca-Cola Under 15 tournament in Bloemfontein in 2012 and invited me for the trials,” Mbule tells FARPost.
That two-hour trip obviously came with its uncertainties. There were no guarantees he would make it. But to his young mind none of that mattered at all.
I mean, it meant spending the entire day with his buddies from Bethlehem and getting to play his favourite game. By 6am, their transport was already on the way to Virginia.
Mokoena remembers the arrival of the Bethlehem crew in two taxis just in time for the first batch of trialists. They seemed like a united front. However, to get what he wanted to achieve, he had to split them.
“When the boys came in from Bethlehem, I split them up and placed them in different groups for the trials. I didn’t want them to play in the same teams since they knew each other,” Mokoena explains to FARPost.
The ‘90s Free State Stars player had his work cut out. He had to run the rule over 700 kids. Each group would get 14 minutes to show what they were capable of in a 11v11 match.
With all honesty, he is quick to admit that a lot of talent may have slipped through his fingers. But he just wasn’t going to miss the boy from the Vuka area in Bohlokong.
The boney youngster’s body frame would have easily deceived anyone especially considering he was facing boys who looked a lot bigger than him, but not his watchful eye.
Once he had the ball at his feet, he had the arrogance that said ‘it’s all mine’. He still has it.
“Sipho [Mbule] was part of the second group. I pulled him out after just five minutes because I had seen what I wanted to see. It was still early around 8am and that meant I had to keep him around until 4pm for the final selection,” recalls Mokoena.
Interestingly, Mbule was a young up and coming winger at the time. He enjoyed pacing up the right wing, giving defenders a torrid time.
“Sipho caught my eye in less than five minutes. He was that good, I only needed five minutes with him. So, just to make sure he didn’t run away I took him to my office, switched on my computer for him to play games,” says the man who now heads the academy started by former Bafana Bafana coach, Molefi Ntseki.
In his mind, he was so convinced the computer games would keep the Bohlokong boy distracted so he would not disappear thinking it was over for him.
However, back in Bohlokong, a Bethlehem township named after the hloko/bohloko grass, football was the staple.
After a few minutes in the coach’s workstation, Mbule was back on the pitch side playing with his friends from ekasi.
“I then went up to him and asked him if he had locked my office, which I knew he didn’t. So, I gave him my keys in the hope that he would not leave without telling me since he’d have to give me my keys,” says Mokoena.
His plan worked. He was able to keep him until late afternoon when he had to finalise his selection.
Again, when it came to the final selection, there was little pondering to do over Mbule. Together with the boys he had picked along the way, he made up four semi-final teams that would play 20 minutes.
“He only played 10 minutes and my mind was made up,” adds Mokoena. His task was not over though. He had to jealously guard his newly found gemstone to make sure he was not to be snapped up by another admirer between November and January.
As a scout, he knew pretty well that his colleagues particularly from Gauteng often did rounds in the Free State in search of talent.
He was right because Mbule had earlier escaped the eye of Mamelodi Sundowns scout Walter Steenbok by a hairsbreadth.
“I watched them in the Engen tournament, and I loved Teboho Mokoena while Thomas Nare [who was also a Sundowns scout] insisted that I also look at Sipho Mbule,” Steenbok tells FARPost.
Nare, who presently serves as goalkeepers’ coach at Baroka FC, adds: “I kept telling this guy that if you are taking this one [Mokoena], also take this one [Mbule].”
Of course, Mokoena signed a deal with Sundowns but fell through as they wanted him to finish his Grade 12 the following year.
“Between November and January, I would often travel to Bethlehem to greet him [Mbule] and make sure he is still playing soccer. I also wanted to assure him that he was still coming to Harmony Academy.
“When I knew SuperSport were doing trials in Bethlehem, I invited all the boys I had picked to Virginia to come and play friendly matches so that they would not be spotted by SuperSport,” explains Mokoena.
In January 2013, Mbule started his journey at the academy. “I went there as a winger, but they changed me to play central midfield,” he recalls, adding that it was a worthwhile switch.
Mokoena reveals how opponents dreaded playing against Mbule. The boy was skilful, often leaving defenders for dead with his trademark U-turns. He also had the knack of scoring goals.
“Whenever I taught them the technique of passing and shooting, I’d do it for a whole three months. You could tell Sipho was bored because he was good. I was just wasting his time because he had it all mastered,” the academy mentor adds.
Mbule, who was part of the Harmony team that beat English Premier League team Swansea City’s juniors 3-1 at the Under 19 Bayhill Premier Cup in April 2015, was instrumental as the academy won the Engen tournament nine times in a row, a feat he singles out as special in the early days of his career.
Interestingly, SuperSport scout Godfrey Mosoetsa, who had lured Teboho Mokoena the previous year, spotted him at one of the Engen tournaments.
“I saw him in the Engen tournament. In that kind of tournament, you always look for a player who’s an impact player and effective. You want to see him able to create and score goals. Sipho was able to do both,” Mosoetsa tells FARPost.
His childhood friend Teboho Mokoena, says a reunion was always inevitable.
“We had known each other from a young age while playing in primary school, but we weren’t as close until we went to Harmony,” the Bafana Bafana player tells FARPost.
Mbule admits that once he made the move to Tshwane, all he could see in front of him was possibilities.
It didn’t take Stuart Baxter too long to promote him to the first team. “I literally played two or three games in the MDC and Stuart Baxter told me I was a good player. He thought I was confident on the ball,” says the Matsatsantsa midfield ace.
And then he introduced himself to top-flight football in style when he scored a scorcher in SuperSport’s 2-1 loss to TP Mazembe in the final of the Caf Confederation Cup first leg in the Democratic Republic of Congo late in 2017.
“That’s one of my memorable moments in SuperSport colours, it was special,” he says.
However, his light would dim a little over the next year with Baxter giving the nod to a much more experienced Reneilwe ‘Yeye’ Letsholonyane in the engine room.
But when Letsholonyane left the club at the end of the 2018/19 season, he took his game up a notch, scoring three goals and registering two assists in 28 League games.
His contribution inspired the Pretoria outfit to the MTN8 crown. He was duly rewarded when named the club’s Players’ Player of the Season for his breakout term.
This season, he has developed into a vital cog in coach Kaitano Tembo’s engine room, featuring in 24 League games. He has hit the target four times while providing five assists.
“Technically Sipho is one of the best players in the league, he has changed the way he plays but he needs to affect matches a bit more,” says Tembo.
Now Mbule, 23, has his sights set on being a Bafana regular and one day scoring a move to Europe!
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By Mthokozisi Dube