How Sundowns accidentally spotted Gaston Sirino

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Pitso Mosimane wasn’t supposed to be watching Gaston Sirino on that momentous afternoon in November 2017.

For a while, Mosimane had made it clear he was in the market for a tall striker.

The Kagiso-born coach was almost convinced he had found the right man in Gilbert Álvarez Vargas, pictured below, a lanky forward who turned out for Jorge Wilstermann – a club named after Bolivia’s first commercial pilot.

Vargas was a highly rated, 1.83m tall forward whose stock started rising in his days as a teenager when he played as a lone striker in the 2009 South American Under 17 Football Championship. He scored three goals in the tournament.

And so, Mosimane set out to Cochabamba, central Bolivia, where Club Deportivo Jorge Wilstermann were locking horns with Bolívar La Paz – Sirino’s club at the time – on 5 November 2017.

It was as if Mosimane was preparing for the departure of two of his frontmen – Percy Tau and Khama Billiat – who would both leave about seven months after the Bolivia trip.

The ‘Lion of Judah’, as Tau had been christened, later headed out to Belgium, on loan from English side Brighton while Billiat jumped ship to join Kaizer Chiefs.

Add to that, Leonardo Castro was also on the way out, signalling the end of the esteemed ‘CBD’ combination that terrorised defences both on the domestic scene and in the continent in 2016.

Keegan Dolly had already joined French Ligue 1 side Montpellier in January of that year. But life at Chloorkop had to go on.

In South America, there was a man who supposedly could blow a fresh breath of life into the Downs juggernaut.

On Nov 9, 2017, a local publication wrote: “A picture of Mosimane alongside a Club Jorge Wilstermann’s head coach, Roberto Mosquera is currently doing the rounds in Bolivia. As reported over recent months, Sundowns are looking to add two more strikers to their books in the near future as Mosimane looks for the missing puzzle pieces of his attacking department.”

At the time, Mosimane had returned home, leaving club scouts Esrom Nyandoro and Walter Steenbok to continue with the search for the much-needed striker.

But as fate would have it, Vargas, who had previously played his club football in Brazil and Belgium, was struggling for form around November 2017 and had not scored a goal in four games.

In fact, a video of that particular game shows the then 25-year-old striker only touched the ball 11 times. Seven touches in the first half and a mere four times in the second half summed up a man who was far from impressive.

Mosquera, pictured below, a Peruvian manager, was on his way out of the club at the time. Perhaps his most trusted striker was a bit unsettled because of the team’s instability.

On the other hand, the man who would strike twice for Bolívar La Paz was none other than Sirino.

Understandably, Nyandoro, according to Steenbok, couldn’t take his eyes off the slender, skilful forward whose two goals came in quick succession in the opening 10 minutes of the game.

His first goal came in the seventh and the second two minutes later.

During the next three weeks, Sirino was in unrelenting form, banging in four goals in three matches as if he knew there was a South African team following him with a hawk’s eye over the next three weeks.

“We went to a television station where we bought 12 videos of matches. The league has 14 teams so watching all those videos meant we covered the entire league. We wanted to watch more of him,” says Steenbok, author of The Football Scouting Bible.

Steenbok was explaining to FARPost the scouting process as detailed in his 224-paged book.

“We went there to provide a second opinion. In the book, I talk about the stages and steps of scouting. The coach (Mosimane) was going to see the player and Esrom (Nyandoro) and I had to go and provide a second opinion.

“When asked about Vargas (after the game), Esrom said ‘no’. He had been impressed by number 7 (Sirino) from the opposition team,” Steenbok reveals.

After watching several other games and scanning through the videos, there was no way the little South American magician would remain in Bolivia. He just had to make his way to Tshwane.

In any case, he was already 2000 kilometres from Salto, his rural town located on the Argentinian border.

Salto, with a population of 100 000 people, is also home to Uruguay’s top strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani.

Unlike his dad, who turned down opportunities to go and play the game elsewhere citing he wanted to be close to his wife, the 29-year-old star moved to Montevideo to join the youth side of Penarol earlier in his budding career, but was written off because of his small body frame when it was time to move to the senior squad.

Undeterred, he gave it a shot at Rampla Juniors, and was later snapped up by Union San Felipe in Chile, where he shone like a beacon before taking the Bolivian Liga de Fútbo by storm.

After that Bolivia excursion, the Downs scouts described Sirino as a typical Jabu Pule player. ‘Ngwana wa Tshwenya’ was a quick, dribbling wizard with the knack of scoring all-important goals. Understandably, they immediately forgot about the ‘tall striker’.

Steenbok also recalls travelling some two hours outside Santa Cruz, a cosmopolitan hub famed for its museums, restaurants and nightclubs, to Warnes to watch Sirino sink another brace against Sport Boys FC.

Interestingly, Sirino knew nothing about South Africa at the time, but he was ready for a new challenge.

“I was looking for a new challenge after winning the league with Bolivar,” he said after finally completing his move in January 2018.

“I had heard there was interest in me from a club in South Africa. In South America we hear very little about South African football, so I had to look into the club and its history.

“I called my agent and asked him what he thought of the club. He told me about the Champions League victory and the success the club enjoyed.

“That was enough for me to take up the challenge and explore this opportunity under the guidance of Coach Pitso, who made me feel welcomed and made it easy for me to adjust to the league and my teammates.”

And those that have followed Sirino’s relationship with Mosimane closely will know how much he became one of his most trusted lieutenants.

He rewarded the club’s faith in him with 24 goals and 29 assists off 100 games for the Brazilians.

“It’s no secret that the player loves his coach. Pitso creates relationships with his best players and tries to bring the best out of them. He’s a player’s coach and obviously Gaston has always been dear to him,” a source close to the player said.

No wonder, the 2019 Telkom Knockout Player of the Tournament was so keen to reunite with his former coach who is now at the helm of Egyptian giants Al Ahly.

However, his club’s valuation, estimated to be about R90 million, was reportedly not met by his suitors.

In fact, the Egyptian giants long flirted with the idea of signing the talented star, but their interest would not amount to anything as Mosimane stood in the way of the deal at the time.

Instead, Sirino signed a five-year extension last year.

Fast-forward a few months later, Mosimane now the man in charge at Al Ahly, the script has changed.

“Whenever they (Sirino’s parents) came to South Africa, he (Mosimane) would meet with his parents. Sirino’s wife is here so obviously he knows her.”

Mosimane, who led Ahly to the Caf Champions League triumph in November, made it clear he was not the reason the Cairo giants wanted Sirino.

“All of you guys know that Al Ahly has been asking about Sirino while I was still at Mamelodi Sundowns, it’s a fact,” Mosimane explained to SA Football Journalists’ Association (Safja).

“It’s just a perception that I am the one who wants Sirino at Al Ahly because I am in the hot seat now. It will always link to me. I am not angry with it because it has always been there, you know about it, you wrote about it all the time.”

He added: “I am the one who said to Sirino he should not go and help us win the second star. I was the one. They have always been talking about Sirino over here and it is the first time I speak to you guys about it.”

An Egyptian football journalist Mustapha Tantawi estimates that at Ahly, Sirino could easily pocket in the region of R20 million by the end of 2021 in his wages, bonuses and signing on fee.

“Ahly pays its players quite well and gives good bonuses because they have several sponsors. They are a well-run club, maybe that’s why Sirino wanted to join them.

“He has won everything with Sundowns, and knows with Al Ahly he could win the Caf Champions League and the Fifa World Club Cup,” he says.

But, as things stand, Sirino will have to stay put at Chloorkop and hope that perchance another dramatic occurrence would land him in the fertile land on the banks of the Nile.

RELATED STORY: Walter Steenbok: The devoted apostle to the football scout cult

By Mthokozisi Dube

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