Kaitano Tembo: Giving budding gems a shot at elite football

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Kaitano Tembo remembers how his playing career began.

Sure, he was born 51 years ago, just 10 years before his country’s independence and those not so good old days in colonial Rhodesia are no doubt now mostly a blur.

However, no player forgets those first days they felt the football on their deft feet, those first few months when their little toes and feet made contact with leather.

After all, on the wrong feet, a football can be wild and untameable, flying in the wrong directions and angles, rushing at a pace scarcely believable even to the kicker. But on the right feet, a football listens to instructions, going where it has been sent with unerring accuracy and stubbornness.

Not all are blessed with this rare ability, this gift to give precise orders to that oval shaped piece of leather. Tembo learnt early that he was one of those blessed with this gift.

It is perhaps why he remembers those early days when he played football at Tafadzwa Primary School back in Kadoma, a small town 166 kilometres southwest of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. “During my days, schools’ football was important,” he tells FARPost.

Tembo will never forget those early days when he turned for a semi-professional academy Chikakarara in the same town where former Mamelodi Sundowns forward Cuthbert Malajila also hails from.

It is where that tough-as-nails defender, that defensive bulldozer that would stand tall and strong in SuperSport United’s colours for over 200 appearances was born.

“We used to train every day after school at the academy. That’s where my career blossomed. We often played against schools from around the area on Wednesdays and Fridays. It was very competitive,” he recalls.

Then Super Beef spotted teenage Tembo and took him to the second division. “Dynamos then saw me in division two when I finished school,” he adds.

Later, Tembo would move to Cape Town-based Seven Stars, with fellow Zimbabweans Edelbert Dinha, pictured below, and Stewart Murisa after a successful trial.

When Seven Stars was merged with Cape Town Spurs in 1999 to form Ajax a season later, he decided against joining this new side, choosing instead to move to join SuperSport. He has been in Pretoria ever since.

Before the move to United, Tembo had already tasted success with Dynamos, and is widely acknowledged as the rock at the defensive heart of a hard to beat side that even went on to reach the final of the Caf Champions League the year after he departed.

While he remembers those days in Dynamos’ glorious blue, Tembo remembers his days at Chikakarara just as fondly.

It may be the reason why, as the coach of SuperSport United, he has given a chance to so many players from the team’s academy.

“As coaches, we learn from different coaches, administrators and then create our own personalities.

“I always try and give opportunities to players from the academy, because I come from an academy background and I know those young players are itching to get a chance to show what they are capable of.

“We lose talented youngsters because of lack of opportunities and belief. For me to be where I am, someone gave me the opportunity,” says the former Warriors defender.

Be that as it may, Tembo is well aware chances ought to be given to deserving – hungry and passionate youngsters. Since his appointment, he has overseen a plucky overhaul of the SuperSport side.

When he took over the reins, Matsatsantsa boasted in its ranks such battle-hardened veterans as Tefu Mashamaite, Morgan Gould and Reneilwe Letsholonyane.

Since then, the makeup of the side has changed. New stars have been born, and a promising crop of young, hungry players now form the spine of a side that is beginning to flower into the powerhouse it has only threatened to become over the last few seasons.

“The make-up of the team has changed since I took over, the team I inherited had the likes of Tefu Mashamaite, Morgan Gould, Yeye (Letsholonyane), (Mandla) Masango all those big-name players, we cut the average age, there’s a lot of young talents in the team, but we have stayed competent.

“We are still ambitious and fighting for the trophies. That says a lot. People haven’t really noticed that the make-up of the team has changed,” he says.

Aubrey Modiba and Dean Furman also left at the end of last season yet the team has remained stable. Understandably, Tembo’s work has not gone unnoticed in Atteridgeville.

Bradley Grobler, now one of the few wizened old heads in a dressing room that is getting younger by the season, acknowledges the transformation that the Zimbabwean gaffer has brought to the Pretoria side.

With the likes of Sipho Mbule and Tebogo Mokoena knocking loudly on the Bafana door, it might be the kind of transformation that might ultimately benefit the national team.

Across the Ramatlabama border, Botswana are already reaping the rewards with SuperSport’s 22-year-old defender Thatayaone Ditlhokwe captaining the Zebras.

And then you have the likes of budding midfielder Oswin Appolis, 19, youth international Keenan Phillips, 21, and Luke Fleurs, 21, all showing so much promise.
“He’s not been given enough credit for what he’s done, we’ve seen over the years that we’ve had some experienced coaches come to the team and it’s been extremely difficult for them,” says Grobler.

“Kaitano came into the job with very little head coaching experience, I can’t fault him, I think he’s been incredible…the way he’s managed players, I take myself as an example, the way he’s managed me as a player has been very good.

“You look at the number of youngsters coming through, not just coming through, but playing week in, week out pushing into the Bafana squad, guys like Sipho (Mbule), Tebza (Tebogo Mokoena) and Jamie Webber, he’s just got that thing about him that he knows how to manage players,” says the former Platinum Stars striker.

Despite his belief in youth, Tembo knows the importance of experience. The Zimbabwean international played until he was 37 years old and players like the free scoring Grobler, aged 33, are crucial in the unfolding evolution of Matsatsantsa.

“Bradley Grobler is technically gifted, it’s unfortunate he has struggled with injuries, he could have stayed in Europe if it wasn’t for injuries. In a team like ours, you need experienced players to guide youngsters.

“Credit goes to senior players because they guide the youngsters and play a role in their development. The philosophy at SuperSport is to develop youngsters even if it means they go on to play at other clubs. You can’t take all of them,” he says.

Tembo can only marvel at the path Bafana Bafana goalkeeper Ronwen Williams has taken. The SuperSport skipper walked into the club’s doors at the age of 12.

“We get joy when we see something like that. A player we’ve known as a ‘toddler’ is now a man and is now captain of the team. Those are players you can use as the pinnacle of your success as a club,” the SuperSport coach says.

After 19 games, Tembo and his charges are sitting pretty on the log, second only to pace-setting Pretoria rivals Mamelodi Sundowns. If they maintain their position, or go a rung higher, a place in Africa beckons.

A continental sojourn would assert SuperSport’s rise to the pinnacle of the beautiful game on the continent once again. It is a dream within touching distance and one which Tembo is ready to grasp.

“We have been winning domestic trophies. We last won the league in 2010. After winning the league thrice in a row we never finished in the top four. There has been something wrong with our consistency since we won it. We should start challenging for the league and be among the top four and play in Africa.

“The image of the club improves when we play in Africa. I could see what was starting to happen, how teams would see us when we played in Africa. We were selling our club to the rest of the continent. We need to do that consistently. Teams like Sundowns are always playing there, they are known in Africa but we need to start here at home and make sure we’re consistent,” he says.

Thabo September, who was part of that Matsantsantsa side that won the coveted league title thrice on the trot, is now one of Tembo’s trusted lieutenants. He serves as second assistant.

September shares the coach’s dream of conquering Africa. It is a dream that both men are keen to achieve using only the youthful arsenal at their disposal.

“The core of the team is coming from our academy. We also have players with experience who have been with the team for quite a while like Thamsanqa Gabuza, Grant Kekana and Bradley Grobler. It’s a very young squad with an average age way below 25.

“We want to go play in Africa so the players can get experience. With the way we are progressing, we can go far. The mistakes (during games) are a learning curve for the players. Another season in the PSL they will be solid.

“We’ve lost games through individual mistakes, it’s part of growth, you learn from those mistakes. The future looks bright,” September tells FARPost.

In a way, the evolution of Tembo’s side reflects the journey that he has taken as a coach. From his appointment as the Under 17 coach in 2007 following his retirement because of a recurrent knee injury, he rose through the ranks until he got a chance on the hot seat over a decade later.

A rookie without experience, he took a gamble and put his trust in young, untested talent. Now that his daring gamble seems close to being rewarded, the MTN8 winning coach’s story does not seem different from that of his players who have grown from boys to men at Matsatsantsa.

RELATED STORY: Ronwen Williams: turning tragedy into success

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