In Lebogang Manyama’s eyes, he is that youthful but fatherly figure that stepped in when both his parents passed on.
To the Alexandra community at large, he is one of the greatest professionals ever to come out of Gomora. The man who hoisted the ‘Alex flag’ at the ‘98 World Cup in France.
Of course, who would forget how he turned villain, shedding tears when he was red-carded against Denmark?
For Pule Majola, who was just seven during France ’98, he is the mentor who presented an opportunity to study and have a career to fall back on if football didn’t work out. As if he knew, a career-ending injury at the age of 23 meant he could not continue with football. All focus had to shift to building his IT career.
Phiri is also that guy whose popular MAP Games bring excitement to Gomora, year after year! While the Games have deservedly earned the illustrious status of ekasi’s World Cup for all their flair, skill and flawless rhythm – they’re about giving back to the community.
They have ceased to be about him as they continue to bond the community and expose football gems. It therefore goes without saying that the soft-spoken Phiri is many things to countless people! Yet he is ever remarkable to each one of those people.
Perhaps it all stems from the interesting genesis of his football journey. He is a product of the famed kasi flair, which his tournament is keeping ablaze.
After learning to play football on the dusty streets of Alex, he joined Alex United at a time when the club still played in SA’s second tier.
It then took a mere five minutes for the eagle-eyed Jomo Sono to spot the prodigiously talented teenager.
“Jomo told me that five minutes was enough to see that I was talented. So he signed me for Jomo Cosmos (in 1995),” the 47-year-old tells FARPost in an interview at his shisa nyama in Alex.
To some extent, his love for football was influenced by his dad. Japan ‘Pro’ Phiri, originally from Malawi, never went Pro though. His mother, Mmamiki Mokoena, who hailed from Ga-Mphahlele in Limpopo, always made him choose between soccer boots and school shoes.
“She’d say you can have the soccer boots if you’re also going to wear them to school,” he says. Oops, the soccer crazy youngster just couldn’t have both. In any case, funds never permitted.
Barely six months after being spotted by Sono, Turkish side Gençlerbirliği came knocking for his unripe services. They had watched him play in a friendly match for Cosmos early in 1996.
Interestingly, Sono felt Kenneth Nagoli was the more ready option. So, a suggestion was made that they have a look at the Zimbabwean midfielder instead of the then budding number 20.
Coincidentally, Nagoli had been called up to play a national team game for the Warriors in Harare. The Turkey contingent, trusting Sono’s word, were willing to go and have a look at him in the Zimbabwe capital.
“The Turkey opportunity was meant for me. Nagoli didn’t play well in that game [that the Turks watched]. If he had played well, they’d have taken him,” he says.
After watching a disappointing 45 minutes of Nagoli, the Turks returned to Sono and made it clear it was the number 20 they were interested in.
What followed was swift negotiations and off he was gone. As expected, settling in Turkey was always going to be a challenge, with the weather totally different, the culture, food and language all new to him.
However, he would spend the next six years in the Super Lig, also turning out for Vanspor and Samsunspor. He believes the reason he excelled in the country bridging Europe and Asia, was because he “left with everything”.
“I left with my life, there was no reason to be homesick. In fact, I had to do everything to stay in Turkey because I wanted my family to be comfortable,” says Phiri, who was capped 13 times.
While he left with his life, Phiri never forgot those he had left behind. His heart was always to empower those he left in Alex.
“I never wanted Mpho to struggle with boots,” he says, adding it became a norm to return home carrying huge bags full of soccer boots.
Makola recalls his first encounter with Phiri and that pair of boots he gave him.
“I’d always known him growing up. I was named player of the tournament in the Maimane Phiri Games when I was young and he had some kind words to say.
“When I was playing for Vaal University in the Vodacom League while doing my matric, I was struggling with boots at the time and he gave me soccer boots. I remember it was an S50plus. It was a decent boot at that point.”
That spirit of generosity is something that has rubbed onto ‘Bibo’. The Puma athlete reveals that he never keeps his used boots. He gives them away just the way Phiri, who also had stints with Moroka Swallows, SuperSport United and Ajax Cape Town, did with him and many other players.
“It’s something we learnt from him,” the Cape Town City star says. Besides the soccer boots, the former Free State Stars and Orlando Pirates midfielder has not forgotten the priceless advice he received from his childhood idol as a youngster. It’s advice that has carried him through the years.
“He said ‘as talented as you are, remember there are thousands of people as talented but what’s going to keep you above is hard work, consistency and remaining humble’,” Makola tells FARPost.
Months after receiving that sensible piece of advice, Makola penned his first professional deal at Free State Stars. Even when a move to Bucs came after four years, he continued to clasp those values.
When Manyama speaks about Phiri, you can tell the man is dear to his heart. Perhaps it is his thoughtful actions during a dark period in his life.
“I remember when I lost my parents, he didn’t replace them, but he guided me, not controlling but guiding,” Manyama tells FARPost.
The Kaizer Chiefs midfielder’s parents passed on a year apart and each time, he remembers how the former Bafana star humbly stepped in.
“I was in Cape Town when I lost my parents in 2011 and 2012 and he was in Johannesburg running around to make sure everything was in place,” he says.
No wonder he adds that it became easy to place his life “in his hands”. Such trust!
Many will remember that after winning the 2016/17 Footballer of the Season, Manyama recognised the role played by his mentor. “I can never forget the recognition I get from people from Alex for this award. Especially Maimane Alfred Phiri‚” Manyama said.
Years later, nothing has changed. The former Swallows midfielder is still that one person he calls for advice at any given time.
“At my age I still ask for advice on certain issues. As a young boy who comes from the township we all see greener pastures, but the truth of the matter is that fame comes with a lot of pressure. So, there are certain decisions I had to make along the way.
“It’s easy when you communicate with someone who knows the struggles [of a football star].
“He’s been a blessing to me and the community. He does go down as the best footballer in Alex, not so much in terms of playing, but giving back to the community,” says Manyama as he waxes lyrical.
His influence transcends the beautiful game that gave him fame. He was based in Turkey when he first got the MAP Games off the ground in 2001. Then, it was just called The Kickaround.
The tournament started with four teams as a “way of giving back to the community of Alex” and in particular to create opportunities for the township’s small businesses. The huge crowds at the tournament have given rise to a booming street economy of braai meat, queen cakes, boiled eggs and giant ice-filled tubs of beers, ciders and cool drinks.
Understandably, the MAP Games have since grown in leaps and bounds. There is now a women’s football tournament while the men’s draw includes Under 13, Under 15, Under 17, Under 20, seniors and masters divisions.
The tournament’s history has borne this out. Bafana legend Siphiwe Tshabalala played at the MAP Games. So did Chiefs midfielder Manyama, Zakhele Siwela, South Africa’s assistant referee who officiated at the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt, cut his teeth at MAP games. The list goes on and on.
On the other hand, it has unlocked doors of opportunity for youth in Gomora.
Pule Majola, pictured above, is one such. He had hoped to one day follow Phiri’s footsteps like many other boys in the hood.
However, prophetic Phiri used to say, ‘not everyone will make it in football’. For that reason, he forged a partnership with Boston College, which gave away bursaries worth R200 000 to underprivileged kids.
“I remember one time he asked if there was anyone who wanted to study. Besides football, he was pushing us in a different direction. It was beyond football, he was building us for tomorrow. He knew some of us would not do well with football,” Majola tells FARPost.
And so, Phiri, who retired from competitive football in 2009 at the age of 32, arranged a bursary for Majola to study IT at Boston. Seven years after his career ended because of a broken leg, he looks back and has every reason to thank Phiri.
He works for an IT company Macroots as a Senior Assistant Administrator. “I broke my leg when I was 23 and playing for Alex FC. They initially said it would take six months but it went on for over a year. I thought taking the work route was the best and I engaged him. He gave me his blessings,” adds Majola.
Incredible as it all sounds, Phiri is not about to stop. “I think I was born with the gift to reach out to others and I will continue to do so,” he concludes.
By Mthokozisi Dube