The subject of interest is how the man unearthed a raw Eric Mathoho deep in Limpopo, outside Thohoyandou, almost 12 years ago.
It then becomes apparent that the masterstroke discovery of a man who has gone on to become the rock of Kaizer Chiefs’ backline was by no means a fluke.
It turns out Owen da Gama is gifted with an eye for talent after all. And often, the selfless descendent of a highly successful Portuguese sailor and explorer, Vasco da Gama, has no issues going the extra mile to turn the raw talents he comes across into polished gems.
His journey with Mathoho bears testimony of how meticulous he gets when he sees an uncut diamond.
While many are accustomed to him barking instructions on the touchline for his previous clubs that include Silver Stars, Orlando Pirates, Free State Stars and Bloemfontein Celtic, the mission is greater. Besides nurturing future stars into spectacular and exciting footballers, the Highlands Park coach’s utmost desire is to see their lives change right before his eyes.
Divinely, OdG has found the frequency of God! He doesn’t believe it’s the stroke of luck that has brought talents like Katlego Mashego, Stanley Kgatla, Surprise Moriri, the late Oscar Ntwagae, Mokete Mogaila and Given Msimango his way.
“It’s God who gives me the insight,” he says as he astonishingly starts to sound like a cleric on the pulpit.
In his school of thought, that U-turn he made on his way to Venda, to instead go to Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga from Johannesburg (a 4 hour, 30 minute drive) just to be a spectator as Mashego sunk in 8 goals in one game was divinely orchestrated.
The drive to Springs to honour another invite led to an encounter with one Surprise Moriri, a bloke who went on to have a fairy-tale 12-year romance with Tshwane giants, Mamelodi Sundowns.
And the aptitude to identify the leader in an 18-year-old Stanley Kgatla, who went on to be Platinum Stars’ longest serving player and captain, was seemingly the stuff of a second-sighted man.
Perhaps the man is right when he says he has mastered the art of listening to that still small voice that some call intuition. It has never let him down especially on fledgling soccer talents.
“It’s a calling,” he aptly describes it.
Something special though is that he nurtures players almost to the point where he becomes their second father. “I don’t call him coach; the man is my father. Onkgodisitse (he brought me up),” says Kgatla.
The two met when Kgatla was a teenager plying his trade at Winners Park who were desperate to gain promotion to the first division in 2003. They sought the help of Da Gama in preparing for the promotional play-offs. “I arranged a training ground for them for free and I helped them. They gained promotion,” he says.
As if his God was rewarding him for his kind gesture, he got himself a teenage starlet who would pleasingly blossom into a leader and a gritty defensive midfielder.
“He started calling me ‘future captain’ before I even turned 19,” says Kgatla, who spent 8 successful years at Silver Stars (later known as Platinum Stars). Admittedly, he would cringe each time he was called captain-in-waiting. But after years of grooming, deputising the likes of Daniel ‘Sailor’ Tshabalala, under the watchful eye of a man he repeatedly calls father, “it was seamless”, he says.
Even so, the extraordinary encounter was with Mashego, a prolific striker who grew to be known as ‘Mahoota’. Tim Sukazi, then a top agent, and now a football supremo at the helm of TS Galaxy, had told him about the boy.
“I was to drive to Venda, but I then thought to go via Bushbuckridge to see this talent Tim had told me about,” explains ‘Rubber Doll’. It didn’t matter he had to drive over 430 km a different direction. He just had to see this gem. It was worth if after all.
The man Da Gama was scouting netted an unassailable 13 goals in two successive games, inevitably booking himself a seat for the Venda trip.
Mashego speaks from experience: “If he visits a certain place and identifies a good player, he would never leave without the player.” In some instances, like in Mashego’s case, it has meant keeping a stranger in his house for two weeks. Mashego, the 2012/13 league’s top scorer with 13 goals, believes his professional start with Silver Stars under the PSL’s second longest-serving coach, Da Gama, set him on a clear path to success.
In a career that then took him to Moroka Swallows, Orlando Pirates, SuperSport United and Mamelodi Sundowns, Mashego holds the best scoring record in the PSL since 2006 after hitting the net 70 times in 224 games.
“There’s no way you’d play for Owen da Gama’s team and fail to be a success when you move on,” says Mashego, who had previously hit a false start at Hellenic.
Unsurprisingly, Moriri concurs with his ex-Downs teammate Mashego on the 58-year-old mentor. “If you survive in Owen’s team, I don’t think you’d struggle anywhere else,” says Moriri, who met the well-regarded coach in 2002.
Moriri, then a financial management student at Germiston College, was a greenhorn playing in the Vodacom League for Wattville Watford Brothers. Da Gama remembers driving to Springs at the invitation of one Gift Mlambo to watch this outstanding talent. An invite for trials followed. But it would be an unbearable 6 weeks for Moriri, full of uncertainty, before Da Gama made his intentions clear.
“I was wondering what he was looking for, the players there liked me, but he was not saying anything to me,” he says. Funny enough, Moriri recalls, other trialists would be dismissed in a matter of days, but with him, he had to play the waiting game.
Eventually, he signed him and his prodigy never disappointed, making 51 outings and scoring 19 times in his two seasons at the club. But Moriri had his finest football days at Sundowns, a club he joined the same year businessman Patrice Motsepe gained full control of the club in 2004.
He has four PSL titles to show for the more than 200 games he spent wearing the Masandawana jersey. The cherry on top was the 2005/06 PSL Player of the Season accolade. On the other hand, Da Gama devotedly continued with his job. The man is no stranger to success.
He first proved his mettle when he won promotion to the PSL with Rabali Blackpool in 1996. In 2000, he achieved the same feat with Silver Stars, guiding them to the national first division. Two years later, he helped them gain promotion to the PSL.
In the 2005/06 campaign he guided Silver Stars to a fifth place finish in the PSL, earning himself the coveted coach of the season award. The following season, his ingenuity saw him lead them to a Telkom Knockout triumph and a sterling second-place finish. Unfortunately, he missed out on retaining the PSL top coach accolade with the odds seemingly favouring him.
In 2013, his eye for spotting talent was used when he became one of the Nedbank Ke Yona Team coaches together with former Bafana Bafana coach Shakes Mashaba.
Da Gama then showed his coaching prowess three years later when he led the national Under-23 team to the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
After 15 seasons in the PSL, four years with Bafana as assistant coach, and 3 games as interim coach for the senior national team, none of his accomplishments, at least for him, supersede seeing Moriri and Kgatla go on to run successful real estate businesses after hanging up their boots.
Or better still, seeing Mathoho, a lad who had never owned a pair of soccer boots before joining him at Celtic, building a 12-roomed house for his parents.
“The other day we were counting the players God has given me the ability to identify and bring to the PSL and they reach 20,” he says modestly.
But it all stems from a relationship he is striving daily to build with his Maker. Da Gama, a member of the fast-growing Rhema South Church, wants his soul nourished by the word of God and follows church services online every Sunday.
But he admits he was not always a man after God’s heart. “I used to be a naughty guy,” he says. Among his weaknesses, he concedes, was an unquenchable love for the bottle. “I used to drink more than a fish, but I’m a new creation now, I am a brand-new man,” he adds with such delight.
It is for that reason that the Lions of the North’s players start off every session or game with prayer and a short teaching from the Holy Book.
Simone Conley, a Biokineticist and fitness trainer at Highlands Park, who has worked with Da Gama for about seven years, has proudly witnessed the man evolve.
In fact, the accomplished mentor attributes his blossoming walk with God to her guidance.
“He’s got a lot more lives to touch,” Conley says. “He is closer to God right now and when he speaks to players it resonates.”
Da Gama does not hold back in his quest to impact the lives of his players as he unashamedly shares his own mistakes.
“I tell them where I’ve gone wrong, they mustn’t make the same mistakes. I want them to have good careers, away from alcohol and drugs,” he says emphatically.
And it seems his pep talks are paying dividends, as his captain Tapuwa Kapini testifies. The Zimbabwean goalminder worked with Da Gama at Silver Stars before they reunited at Highlands Park three years ago.
“You can see he has changed, he’s a far better person than he was back then,” he says.
But for Da Gama, the mission remains clear – it’s God first. And God’s business, as he understands it, is about impacting people’s lives.
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By Mthokozisi Dube