Wherever football planted him, Mogogi Gabonamong just had the knack of blossoming with grace.
No wonder the endless list of footballing firsts that follow the mention of his name on either side of the Ramatlabama border, located on the southern end of Botswana’s A1 highway and the northern end of South Africa’s N18.
His senior national team debut was certainly not one to envy. The 16-year-old was tasked to man-mark a red-hot Pollen Ndlanya, the 1998/99 campaign PSL top scorer after netting 21 goals for Kaizer Chiefs, in a Cosafa Cup tie between Bafana Bafana and Botswana’s Zebras in Gaborone on 20 February 1999.
Clad in an oversized blue and black Zebras’ strip, he trotted onto the turf of the National Stadium with a clear instruction in mind. The chalk-talk was given to him in his native SeTswana. It was given by a man who was also his coach at army side Mogoditshane Fighters, Major David Bright.
“Coach Bright said to me ‘O nyale Pollen, ha ya go nwa metsi tsamaya le ene’ (you must marry Pollen, when he goes to drink water follow him)’,” he says.
But, of course, he never followed ‘Trompies’ to the Bafana dressing room at half time like Eric Mathoho did with Katlego Mphela on his Bloemfontein Celtic debut against Mamelodi Sundowns.
But yes, by his own admission, Gabonamong was extremely nervous on the day. “It felt like I was about to play against Brazil. At 16, being told to mark players that we were watching weekly was naturally frightening.”
Bright, who has held several coaching jobs in the PSL, understood his teenage starlet’s strengths and was confident he could hold his own against a man who had built a reputation of banging in goals.
“He was young and not as refined technically at that point, so I used him for man-marking in a 3-5-2 formation. I noticed that he was very good at taking and implementing instructions,” explains Bright.
Needless to say, the Zebras succumbed to a narrow 2-1 defeat after former SuperSport United and Santos forward Diphetogo ‘Dipsy’ Selolwane had opened the scoring for the Zebras as early as the 13th minute. Bafana rallied back just before half-time in quick succession, with goals from Ndlanya and Alfred Maimane Phiri sealing the win for them.
“It could have ended badly had I allowed the nerves to get to me, but I didn’t. The older guys were making fun of me in the dressing room about how big my jersey was, which helped calm me down,” says Gabonamong, who hails from Mmutlane, a village in eastern Botswana, some 222km from Gaborone.
An Amakhosi faithful from a young age, Gino, as he is affectionately known, knew what he was up against in Trompies. But his then teammate and camp roommate, Edwin Disang says his performance was a bold announcement of his arrival on the international football scene.
“He did a great job for an amateur, young player. He was only 16 and Pollen Ndlanya was already a professional player,” says Disang from his Florida base in the United States. And very few people know that his performance on the day caught the eye of the ‘Black Prince of South African Soccer’ – Jomo Sono.
“If I had a good representative then, I would have left for Cosmos after that game. Unfortunately, the deal never materialized because the people he got in touch with just shrugged the deal under the carpet. I learnt the hard way to stand up for myself, to educate myself when it comes to interest and contracts,” says Gabonamong, who later developed into one of the leaders that ushered Botswana to its maiden dance at the Africa Cup of Nations in 2012.
But as the religious would say, ‘God’s timing is the best’, 5 years after that encounter he became the first MoTswana to ply his trade in Trinidad & Tobago, donning the jersey of little-known Morvant Caledonia United for a season.
In 2006, he began his PSL sojourn that would yield the highest appearances by any Motswana at 237 when he joined Cape Town side Santos.
He would then become the first MoTswana to captain all clubs he played for in the PSL. In only his second season at Santos, he was handed the armband.
SuperSport United, his next home in 2011, also entrusted him with the captaincy as well as Bloemfontein Celtic, the last PSL club he played for before returning home to wind up his eminent career at Township Rollers.
To date, he remains the only MoTswana to have led a PSL club in a cup final. He captained Matsatsantsa in a Nedbank Cup final in the 2012/13 season against Chiefs, a match he singles out as “the most painful game I lost with the armband on”.
The Tshwane side had won the final the previous season after beating Mamelodi Sundowns 2-0 at Orlando Stadium with Gabonamong part of the team. “I can’t really pinpoint why I captained all the clubs I played for, but I’d like to think it was because I gave it my all every day at training,” says Gabonamong.
Besides the Nedbank Cup triumph and two League titles in Botswana with Fighters and Rollers, he boasts several individual accolades on either side of the border. After leading by example at the People’s Team in the 2008/09 season, he was crowned the club’s Player of the Season.
In 2017, he was awarded the Presidential Certificate, given to BaTswana who excel in different endeavours by then head of state, Ian Khama.
He also received the BTC Premier League Chairperson’s award the same year. However, the team player that he was, he rates the African Team of the Year accolade won by Zebras as one of the most memorable of his career after the team’s fine run in the 2012 AFCON qualifiers.
But before all the fame, the modest Gabonamong, who was easily comfortable in the heart of defence as he was in the middle of the park, was the first Botswana star to play across all national team age groups.
“I juggled from camp to camp for months on end. I’d literally leave after an Under 23 camp to go and join the Under 20s. Sometimes I’d have transport waiting for me to take me to the next camp. It was fun,” says the soft-spoken Gabonamong.
His journey undoubtedly reflects that of a young man who was deeply passionate about the game. Even lack would not stop him from pursuing his goals. He is quick to admit that his diski appetite caused his schoolwork to suffer. In any case, that’s no big deal considering he made a massive success of his career.
“I was a kid, but my schoolwork suffered a lot. I was aware of the sacrifices I was putting in for my country, and more aware of how painful those sacrifices were because the pay was just too little, peanuts, and I would on many occasions go back to those camps again without having received my previous appearance fees,” he says of his early days in the national team.
Several times, his love for the game was put to test. One time, he had to walk from Tsolamosese to the National Stadium, a distance of 17.7 km, because he had no money for taxi fare. “When the going got tough, I always remembered how I walked from Tsolamosese to the National Stadium one Saturday morning for Under 17 trials. I jogged at some point, I didn’t have money for khombi (taxi), but because I knew I wanted to play football, I walked there and was chosen.
“I told myself discipline and hard work will take me far, and they did,” he says.
At times, his love for football landed him in trouble at home. His parents would give him a hiding when he came dirty because of diski. “I still remember how at primary school everyone was always shouting my name, but I just couldn’t understand what the hype was all about. The funny thing is that my schoolmates and teachers would be very happy for me at school but I’d get a beating when I get home, for coming late from playing and worse, coming home very dirty from playing in the most dusty grounds you can think of.
“It didn’t matter to my family that people were celebrating my talent at school, they were angry that I missed my chores or wasn’t studying,” reveals Gabonamong, who started taking an interest in the game at 7. It became more apparent that there was certainly something special about him when he was invited to Manchester United at the age of 16.
“The time I spent on a training attachment at Manchester United was eye-opening, even though nothing materialised, it built me into a better person and player. I was 16, I was just a village boy, seeing a world class facility for the first time then, and players I only knew from posters.”
He’ll never forget how he was shaking when he saw David Beckham, Andy Cole, and Sir Alex Ferguson. “I trained with John O’shea at the development side,” says the man nicknamed Manchester United.
Disang, who met Gabonamong in 1997 at the Under 17 national team, remembers something quite funny about their time in Manchester. “We stayed with a family there and they just knew Gino loved tea. He’d just drink his tea. Now that I remember, at the hotels, when we travelled for games, he’d finish those tea bags they allocate,” he says.
While he was star-struck by the top players he saw at the Red Devils, it wasn’t enough to convert him into a Man U fan. Instead, he reveals that he bought himself an oversized Liverpool jersey while in Manchester.
“I’m not a Manchester United fan, maybe if I played for them, I would have liked it. Funny thing, I bought an oversized Liverpool t-shirt when I was there. I still have it,” he says.
And after hanging his boots in 2017, his farming business is equally blooming with such grace back in Mahalapye, Botswana.
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By Mthokozisi Dube