Courage doesn’t always roar! Sometimes it’s that still small voice at the end of the day whispering, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’
Lesedi ‘TT’ Kapinga has had to rely on that gentle voice – not once, not twice, but countless times in his quest to play in the topflight. And quite frankly, the demise of many often lies in giving up. But when you peruse through the annals of Kapinga’s football trek you just know the most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.
Being a cousin to one of South Africa’s most lethal forwards – Lesley Manyathela – was always enough to spur young TT on. The late Orlando Pirates triggerman, Manyathela, crept into football lovers’ hearts with his precision and composure in front of goal.
Young as he was, Kapinga would sit in front of the television set each time Manyathela’s Buccaneers were in action. Of course, he was only 8 when death robbed the country’s football fraternity and his family of a then 21-year-old Manyathela, but he had seen just about enough to draw inspiration and grit.
In just 73 appearances for Bucs, his kinsman had established himself as a revered striker in the PSL after bagging 48 goals. Manyathela’s influence on Kapinga’s passion for football was incredible and enough to carry him through junior football. His poise and self-confidence were sky-high, thanks to the 2002/03 League’s top goal-scorer, Manyathela, who passed away in a car crash in August 2003, on his way home after an SAA Supa 8 match against Jomo Cosmos. The two share a granny – Manyathela from the maternal side and Kapinga the paternal.
So, his decision to pursue a professional career in football was an easy one. It also made sense in the family seeing the meteoric rise of Manyathela who represented Chelamoya and Dynamos at youth level.
And so, when it was Kapinga’s turn to give football a shot, it became fairly easy. Stints with amateur clubs Newcastle, Real Madrid, Musina United Stars all in Musina set his football sojourn in motion before he joined Benny’s Sports Academy in Makhado in 2010 after being spotted by Justice Matloga during a tournament.
“Lesley was my hero and role model and gave me advice on how to be a better player. I would sit and watch him on TV with so much pride,” he told Limpopo Mirror in 2013.
But he would soon find out that life, and even football, is no respecter of background. He had to carve a niche for himself in the game. Forget about the football accolades his cousin bagged in his short-lived 3-year career in the topflight. He just couldn’t afford to cower under the shadow of Slow Poison. It was time to make something out of the pep talks he got as a youngster from his departed cousin.
Like everyone else whose feet tread upon this planet, TT has had his fair share of obstacles on his way to stardom. Some that left him dejected and those around him worried about his emotional well-being. He probably still will, but he seems past the worst.
Of course, while playing junior football, he stood head and shoulders above his peers. His ability to take on defenders and the knack to create scoring opportunities for others was second nature to him.
His ingenuity during the national finals of the Sanlam Kay Motsepe Schools Competition in Durban in September 2013 would not go unnoticed. It earned him a 2-week trial with Mamelodi Sundowns.
David Mufamadi, the owner of Benny’s Sports Academy, remembers that all-important invite for the teenage starlet who was so keen to one day don the Brazilians’ yellow and green.
“Trott Moloto (Sundowns’ chief scout) came through to the academy and they wanted him so much after a tournament we played in. He went to the Mamelodi Sundowns’ camp with three other boys for 2 weeks but things didn’t work out,” recalls Mufamadi, who confirms that it was Kapinga’s third visit to Chloorkop after attending trials there in 2011 and 2012.
“He was crying at night after that failed trial saying, ‘I don’t know what to do…’. He desperately wanted the opportunity,” Mufamadi adds. At some point, the Brazilians were going to sign him as a development player and then loan him out, which he found a bit off the wall.
Mufamadi is convinced some people didn’t want to give him a chance because of his height. TT stands at just 1.65m, just 5cm shy of Barcelona’s diminutive talisman Lionel Messi. He is not your typical Eric Mathoho, Kaizer Chiefs’ defence stalwart, who is arguably the tallest PSL player at 1.98m. He also comes in a small frame, but Joel Masutha warns anyone who undermines him based on his physique.
“People look at his body structure, and based on that on its own, he has failed the trials. But what they don’t know is that he is small, but has the heart of a lion,” Masutha says, adding that his trademark sluggish walk gives the impression that he’s a ‘luxury player’.
Widely used as an insult in contemporary football, a ‘luxury player’ is, essentially, a footballer who could be considered a luxury if utilised. Their inclusion in a team triggers the inevitable dilemma: do the positive effects of the player outweigh the negative contribution they will make?
But then again, when one browses the web for synonyms of the word ‘luxury’ on its own, the ever-reliable Google paints a picture of the phenomenal talent TT is. A series of words come up, among them magnificence a term that aptly describes what the pint-sized playmaker does with the ball at his feet; and rarity, which he is. He is the rare breed of a modern number 10 with beautiful skill to unlock even the most stubborn of defences. When deployed as a false 9, thanks to his versatility, he is not one to wait for other players to graft for him and give him balls. He will drop and collect balls from the middle of the park. Such is his industriousness.
“From the way he walks, he looks lazy, you can think he’s a luxury player. Most coaches who want grafters in midfield tend to misjudge him, but they will enjoy him when they give him a chance,” adds Masutha.
Mufamadi reiterates Masutha’s sentiments and further says his former protégé has what it takes to ply his trade in Europe.
“He’s not supposed to be playing in the PSL, he belongs in Europe. He has every attribute to create a goal. He is gifted with a football brain. When he stops the ball and there’s two opposition players around him, you just know he’s about to eliminate them,” explains Mufamadi.
But the trail hasn’t been an easy one. It has been a string of trials and he probably can’t believe how many teams have run the rule over him and rejected him. Baroka FC, Bidvest Wits, AmaTuks, Highlands Park, you name it.
Interestingly, in 2014, Black Leopards coach Solly Luvhengo had a glance at his abilities in a few sessions. TT claims the club promised to call him but “that call never came”.
Being the go-getter he is, Kapinga, whose grandparents hail from Malawi, is not one to close the book when things don’t go his way! So, he just turned the page and gave a shot at a new chapter!
This time, he went to United FC who were under the tutelage of Dan Malesela and another promised phone call just would not come.
“I was told my body is way too small and I need to go to the gym to lift weights and take supplements,” he says.
For all his doggedness of forging ahead even when the future looks bleak, his turning point finally came in an extraordinary way. He put in a five-star performance at the Punch Masenamela Tournament in Bochum.
Dondol FC boss Lordwick Makhura just could not leave without him after his stellar showing.
“I saw him once and I took him immediately after the game to come with me to Pretoria. Of course, I had to ask for permission from his mother and paternal grandmother,” Makhura explains. The move to the capital saw him play in the SAB Regional League, the fourth tier of domestic football, before he was loaned out to JDR Stars, who were playing in the ABC Motsepe League – the overall third tier of the local game.
“After being side-lined at many trials because of height and body structure, I kept telling him that what God gave him, no one could take away from him. He just needed to stay focused and keep playing his football,” Makhura says, adding that he sensed some despondency in TT after the many rejections.
“I decided to take him to church because he was looking dejected after being turned down. I thought that would build his faith,” Makhura adds.
As though it was a reward for seeking divine intervention, his breakthrough finally came in 2017 when Tshakhuma Tsha Madzivhandila FC bought the NFD franchise of Milano United. They invited the then 22-year-old for trials on the recommendation of Masutha.
“I knew he’d been to trials at several clubs without success, but I was so sure he’d make it at TTM. So, I spoke to the manager at TTM (Sello Chokoe) and he came and proved he was a good player. He did extremely well at TTM. He was unbelievable,” Masutha says.
However, it was a rocky start for TT as he had to sit it out on the bench for the first 7 games of the campaign, something Masutha attributes to the fact that he had not been part of the full pre-season.
But the day he was handed his first full start, Masutha knew they’d not keep him beyond a season. He announced his arrival in style. Finally, interest started swelling with a number of PSL teams from across the country enquiring about the diminutive midfielder.
Leopards, who had blown the initial chance to sign him 4 years prior, finally landed him ahead of the 2018/19 season. Since then, his former teammate Cuthbert Malajila says he has been a standout player for Lidoda Duvha. He has scored 7 goals and made 8 assists in 51 appearances.
Onto his next chapter – his fourth visit to Sundowns – this time after signing that coveted contract with the Pitso Mosimane-coached club.
“He has to go and work hard, when he gets his chance, he must grab it with both hands. At Sundowns if you miss one game it’s not easy to come back into the team because there are many quality players. So, he must maximise on his chances,” says Malajila, who played for the Chloorkop outfit between 2013 and 2019.
Expect TT to put the three botched Sundowns trials at the back of his mind and graft. He seemingly lives by the rule that things don’t go wrong and break your heart so you can become bitter and give up. In his school of thought, they happen to break you down and build you up so that you can be all that you were intended to be. And the little man who moves a mountain by carrying away one small stone at a time is ready for his new challenge at Chloorkop.
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By Mthokozisi Dube