Grey College in Bloemfontein is a school with a proud rugby heritage. Indeed, Stellenbosch’s Paul Roos is the only school in South Africa to have produced more Springboks.
Naturally, when the Grey 1st XV plays, the whole country takes note, but in 2014, the school was gripped by football fever.
The reason for this was that one of their favourite sons, first team captain Tshegofatso Mabasa, was the talk of the town.
At the time, Grey’s football programme was headed by Nicholas Koupis, although he has since been replaced by former SuperSport United defender Ricardo Katza.
“He was by far, by far the best player [I ever coached],” Koupis tells FARPost. “He started with me in 2009. He was 13, turning 14.
“What we did with him was: I got feedback from one of my youth coaches saying that I should come have a look at this boy [because] he was physically stronger than his teammates and he was more aware of his surroundings, more agile and quick
on the ball.
“I went to see one of his games and thought: ‘This kid is phenomenal.’ His presence could be felt on the field. His teammates knew that and a lot of them were motivated by it.
“What we did was: we altered him. When his U14 team was playing, we put him in there, but when we had the U19 team playing friendlies or a cup game that we knew we could win, we’d throw him in for 10 or 15 minutes just to give him that confidence booster and to start developing him as a player.
“Then, in 2010, he became more [of a] regular in the U19 squad. From 2011 to 2014, he was, out and out, a player who set different standards at Grey College. He gave other players motivation to be on the same pitch as him. He brought something different to the game.”
Although Koupis never coached a more talented player than Mabasa, he believes the striker’s breathtaking ability in front of goal alone could not have won his rugby-mad peers over at Grey.
Instead, he claims, Mabasa’s human qualities sealed the deal. “He was a leader; he was such a nice kid. He loved the game –he still loves the game. I mean, he’s just such a good boy — he’s got good mannerisms, he’s willing to learn all the time, he never said no to anything and he was always the first one to training and the last one to leave,” Koupis recalls.
“In his matric year, he was a prefect [and he won] the Sportsman of the Year award over and above some of the rugby players that normally get it. Because of that, he made quite an impact at the school.
“Among the rugby players, he started building up a reputation as a leader. It wouldn’t happen often, but in his year, on a few occasions, we’d get some of the first team rugby players coming to watch the first team soccer play, which shows me that he has the character to build bridges with different types of sporting codes.”
For Alex Jonker, Grey’s first team rugby captain in 2014, Mabasa left a lasting impact.
“I still remember us as a team going down to watch the soccer games. I still have photos of me and Tshego after our rugby games as well — him coming down to the pitch to take photos with us,” Jonker told FARPost.
“I can recall a game that the guys played — I think it was in the Engen [Knockout] Challenge. It was in school time, so the whole school went down there. I think they won the game 7-0 and the amazing thing was that for all of those goals, either Tshego had an assist or he was scoring.
“I think that day, as a school, the guys that didn’t know soccer that well wrote his name down on a paper to say: ‘Listen, Tshego is definitely going to be one of the first Grey boys to play for Bafana Bafana one day.’
“I think he gives such hope to young kids — especially at a school where soccer wasn’t a big thing at all. If you look at the teams and how many players there are at Grey at this moment playing soccer, I think he had a big hand in that.
“Me and Tshego had a really great relationship. I promised to attend one of his live games after school one day and I will still live up to that. I will make sure that one day, I will be there in the stands.”
Jonker is convinced that Mabasa will stay loyal to Orlando Pirates for as long as he can, although he also envisions his old friend eventually moving overseas.
“I think Tshego is somebody that gives everything to the team. At Pirates now, for the next few years — until he becomes a legend at the club — I don’t think he will move around clubs,” he claims.
“But ja, I think he is probably going to end up overseas. He has the talent to do that. I’d love to see Tshego end up in the (English) Premier League or wherever he wants to go and play.”
According to Koupis, the idea of an overseas move for Mabasa is not merely a pipe dream. Mabasa’s former coach claims the striker has turned heads abroad at least to some extent.
“He will definitely play for the national team and, I think, go to Europe very, very soon. I’ve had calls from a very high-profile agent in Portugal — one of his players just signed for PSG now — that is after Tshegofatso and wants to take him to Europe,” Koupis claims.
“That is something that I’ve spoken to Tshego about, but, you know, at the end of the day, the decision lies with him. I’m not an agent — I’m just a coach. At the end of the day, I can only advise him to do the right thing.”
Koupis says Mabasa’s move to Bloemfontein Celtic was the first football transfer for which Grey received a fee.
He made his first team debut for Celtic in October 2014, going on to sign for Pirates ahead of the 2019/20 season.
Injuries and stiff competition from the likes of Gabadinho Mhango and Zakhele Lepasa have not made Mabasa’s job any easier at the Buccaneers, but he has so far netted nine times in 909 minutes of league football for Ezikamagebhula.
Mabasa will surely feel his work is not done yet in terms of making an impact at one of South Africa’s grandest clubs. However, for a player who bridged racial, cultural and sporting divides at one of its most famous schools, no endeavour ought to be viewed as too daunting.
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By Leonard Solms