Remembering football the Ted Dumitru way

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When Jabu Pule went AWOL on the eve of a crucial ABSA Cup last 32 match against Mamelodi Sundowns on 29 February 2004, Ted Dumitru had a remedy for Shuffle’s disappointing, yet not so completely unexpected disappearance.

It was not the first time that the powers that be at Chiefs were left frothing at the mouth after Pule vanished. But this time, the Romanian mentor had a solution, or so he thought. If he could not reform the old Pule, he would just invent a new one.

On the morning of the match against Sundowns, he sent a team to go in search of a youngster that had not even made the team’s matchday squad. Deep in the bowels of Daveyton these wise men would find his saviour, the one that was going to save face for the boys from Naturena after their star player abandoned them at their hour of need.

The youngster’s name was Junior Khanye. “He believed in me when I was 17,” Khanye tells FARPost.

Of course, Chiefs lost that tie 3-1 but in a post-match interview, the then Amakhosi coach was adamant that he had found his ‘boy’. From the dusty streets of Daveyton, he had unearthed his Jabu Pule replacement.

“He is the next Jabu Pule at Kaizer Chiefs,” gushed the Bucharest-born coach. “He is not yet ready, but I wanted to prove a point. I took a risk by playing him in this cup match and I think he did exceptionally well.”

Chiefs did lose that game and Khanye indeed became the new enfant terrible of South African football, succeeding Pule in both the good and the bad. However, that day, Dumitru proved what set him apart from other men that stood in dugouts around South Africa.

Coaching one of the biggest teams in the league, the then defending champions, he was willing to give a chance to a 17-year-old boy from ekasi in one of the biggest matches of the season.

From Pule, to Khanye and the late Emmanuel ‘Scara’ Ngobese, the man is praised for bringing a certain Mzansi prototype to the South African mainstream. In the hands of some coaches, particularly those that come from beyond South African borders, the diski flair that the likes of that trio brought to the topflight was blunted, as gaffers tried to coach out of them the skills that they had learnt and harnessed on the streets of Mzansi. This was not so for Dumitru.

“He knew our football better than some South African coaches. He understood the culture. No one would have coached Scara, pictured above, but Ted got the best out of him. He believed in natural talent,” Khanye tells FARPost.

His embrace of what one would say is the “typical” South African player – skilful, agile and comfortable on the ball, set him apart from a host of foreign coaches that have sat on the dugouts of a lot of local sides. For one thing, the man affectionately called ‘Mr Magic’ or ‘Professor’ did not try to extinguish that brilliant spark of brilliance that Mzansi’s most talented possess. Instead, he encouraged it.

Stanton ‘Stiga’ Fredericks remembers his first training session under the man in 2003. Eager to impress a new foreign coach, Stiga kept reining in his natural instinct to dribble, treating the ball like a hot potato. The previous season he had been named Chiefs’ player of the year after terrorising defences around the country.

But in that session, he was not playing like the magician the whole country knew he was. It said a lot that a player coming off his best season was fearful of what a coach might think of his abilities if he showed a glimpse of his bag of tricks. Dumitru would have none of it.

“He said to me, ‘you lost the ball by playing one touch today in training, I’d prefer it if you lost the ball trying to dribble.’ He explained why. He said ‘if you’re in possession trying to take on a player and you lose the ball, we can win it back because you’re close to the opposition player’, which speaks to the philosophy of pressing. ‘If you’re running and try to pass sideways you’ve committed yourself and three or four players running. So, lose the ball, dribble’.”

Fredericks remembers that one season under Dumitru as the one time that playing football did not feel like a chore. Instead, he felt like he was living his second childhood, playing the game with the fearless spirit he had when it was a cherished hobby back in the streets.

“We come from a place where we were curbed from being too creative, which is football today. Ted encouraged creativity. Everything we did at training was with the ball. It was balls galore.

“We warmed up with a ball, there was no running without the ball. He wanted you to be comfortable with the ball. I understand how a player like Scara Ngobese flourished under him because he would encourage you to be creative,” Fredericks tells FARPost.

While Dumitru, known for his dazzling, enterprising and free flowing style of football, promoted a fearless freedom amongst his players, the style he encouraged was never dribbling for dribbling’s sake.

There was always a method to the madness, a method which many believe if it had been adopted would have taken South African football to the top of the pile again. At the core of the problems in the South African game, Dumitru believed, was a failure by most coaches to understand the kind of players they had under their disposal.

“He had coached in Zambia, [Namibia] and Swaziland before he came to South Africa,” recalls William Shongwe, who played under Dumitru for ‘Sihlangu Semnikati’ and at Amakhosi.

“So, there’s a lot of cultural build up to your understanding before you can help African players which is what most coaches miss. They apply the European mentality, but it doesn’t work.”

Farouk Khan, one of Dumitru’s disciples, concurs with Shongwe. While other foreign mentors, who got their education on the beautiful game in entirely different conditions, thought a one-size-fits-all coaching approach would suit local talent, Dumitru would instead tailor his methods according to the ability of the players at his disposal.

“His philosophy was that we play an African brand of football. He’s a Romanian but he embraced the South African skilful way of football. He always believed players with no skill shouldn’t play this game regardless of position. He was a great believer in people maintaining the culture.

“He believed if you’re a South African player eating pap and mogodu during the week and then someone at the weekend tells you to eat pasta it’s not going to work because your system is not used to eating pasta. He let the players embrace their culture and their traditions.

“If you don’t respect a person’s culture, you won’t get the best out of them. If a player wants to go to a sangoma, let them do so. He would encourage players to express themselves. He wanted players to dance on the field,” Khan, who runs Stars of Africa Academy in Johannesburg, tells FARPost.

By all accounts, Dumitru, who won four league titles with Sundowns and Chiefs – was a revolutionary in South African football. In a modern age that shuns showboating, the man who authored the book Maximal Training proved that kasi style cannot only bring loud cheers from the stands but add silverware to the trophy cabinets of the biggest clubs.

While the cheers went up when opponents were conquered and trophies were won, his revolution began away from stadiums full of raucous joyous fans and celebratory champagne. It always began in the training ground.

“If I give you my training program when we won the league title you’ll laugh. We never once worked on 11v11 tactics,” Khan adds. It was small-sided games. Fun sessions. “We gave the players the canvas and the paint, and they painted beautiful pictures,” says Khan.

In a lot of ways, Dumitru’s coaching style was ahead of its time. Years, even decades before the likes of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola made “pressing” a part of every modern coach’s vocabulary, the former Bafana Bafana coach was already advocating for the suffocation of one’s opponents in the PSL.

“The so-called high press, he called it the squeeze. As soon as we lose the ball, Ted would say ‘squeeze’,” Shongwe tells FARPost. Interestingly, Dumitru’s revolution did not start and end on the playing field or with the silverware he harvested.

From Farouk Khan, Dan Malesela, Cavin Johnson, Sudesh Singh, Zipho Dlangalala, Sam Mbatha, Allan Freese to Teboho Moloi, he inspired a generation of top-class coaches that have gone on to determine how the South African game is played.

Most notably, Pitso Mosimane is on record as saying Dumitru inspired him to become a coach. Mosimane, now the most successful South African coach, was not getting enough game time at Sundowns in the late ’90s and Dumitru encouraged him to coach one of the junior teams at the club‚ and he never looked back.

While he remained a player for the senior team‚ ‘Jingles’ started to focus more on the youth team that had talents like Mbulelo “OJ” Mabizela‚ Bennett Mnguni‚ Benedict “Tso” Vilakazi‚ Jonas Mavimbela and Michael Shata.

“He was way ahead of time because science had not been introduced in South African football,” Moloi tells FARPost. “Yet he knew all these things about science. He knew what to say to a player to get them to perform.”

Moloi, a man synonymous with Orlando Pirates, wishes Dumitru, whose stints with Bafana, Buccaneers and Manning Rangers yielded no success, was alive today.

“He knew how a player’s mind worked. I would have wanted to hear what his take would be on players being fed too much information, too many stats on the opponents. It’s like we’re taking away the freedom from players, we feed them a lot of information and it’s stifling their talent and the way they want to do things,” says Moloi.

By the time he passed away in 2016, Dumitru was, for all intents and purposes, a South African man. The story of how he landed in Johannesburg has never been fully explored.

According to some accounts, he played football in his native Romania before suffering a career-ending injury at a relatively young age. He then studied Sports Psychology and Physiology at the Institute for Sports in Romania and became one of the youngest successful coaches.

After coaching for a while outside the country, he then refused when he was ordered to come coach in Romania by the Communist government of the time.

With an arrest warrant bearing his name, Dumitru Teodorescu escaped to the United States where his name changed to Ted Dumitru. He eventually landed in Jozi in 1985 where he began crafting the blueprint for how the South African game should be played.

There are many who believe that had Dumitru the football prophet’s philosophy had been embraced in his adopted land, South African football would have avoided a lot of heartache over the years.

“He believed one of the strengths of South African football was dribbling and taking on players and he allowed players to do so,” says journalist Sipho Kekana, who over the years grew close to the Romanian coach, eventually naming his son after him.

Kekana recalls how at Sundowns and Chiefs, his dearly departed football friend said they were going to stop doing military exercises.

“He was ahead of his time. He was one of the coaches who stopped frog jumps and lots of running. He said there must not be any drill that doesn’t involve the ball. If South Africa listened to him, we’d really be far ahead in terms of our football,” Kekana tells FARPost.

Not surprisingly, the most recent studies and discoveries on the fields of sport physiology and related neurosciences confirm his ideas and innovative practice.

Truly, the man was way ahead of his time. A football seer of note!

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By Mthokozisi Dube