In August 2017, it looked like Rivaldo Coetzee’s enviable world was crashing down around him!
After a meteoric rise in local football, which included a PSL debut at the age of 17 and a Bafana Bafana debut before he turned 18, it seemed as if the boy from Kakamas – located on the banks of the Orange River in Northern Cape – had finally come face to face with a career derailing obstacle.
Unknown to a sprightly and bright-eyed 20-year-old, as he prepared to have his medical at Glasgow Celtic, his own right foot, the one part of his impressive 1.83m frame that had taken him from the backwaters of Kakamas to the biggest city in Scotland, was conspiring to rob him of his dream move.
Up until that point, Coetzee, named after Brazilian legendary forward Rivaldo by his Seleção-loving dad, had played without any discomfort.
During that fateful medical, however, it would be revealed that he had a broken bone on that right foot.
So rare was the injury that it confounded even some of the best minds in sports medicine, with specialists consulted by the young defender saying they had never seen anything like his injury before.
That intricate network of bones in his right foot, which some deemed impossible to operate on, seemed to have effectively ended, or at best deferred, Coetzee’s dream of playing the game at the highest level.
The meteoric rise, the debuts in the local and international game as a teenager, all seemed a distant memory as tragedy came knocking.
Coetzee’s star, which had been on the rise, seemed to be fading before it had attained its full glow. Was his fledgling career abruptly ending at 20?
It would be almost two years before he set foot on the competitive football arena. Such trials, such tribulations can break an ordinary footballer. Not so for Rivaldo Coetzee.
After all, as young as he was, this was not the first time he had faced adversity in his football career.
“When I was head scout at Ajax, I organised open trials in June 2012,” Tera Maliwa, former head of scouting Ajax Cape Town, remembers of his first sighting of Coetzee.
“He came with his younger brother. He trained on a Saturday and we had 900 boys. We only selected six. It was a school holiday. Every coach was there with their boards, I had Rivaldo’s number. The majority overruled me, so I just scratched his name out,” Maliwa tells FARPost.
His uncle was so convinced the boy had all the makings of a superstar. In any case, the teenager had shone so bright for Kakamas Sundowns, a third tier side back home. Maliwa just had to give him another look.
“His uncle came to me and asked for another chance because he was good. I said ‘bring him on Monday to train with the team’. I asked the coaches to give me a report. Again, he wasn’t good enough for them,” Maliwa recalls.
As young as he was then, Coetzee had already had his first bitter taste of rejection by scouts.
Before he landed on the lap of skeptical coaches in Cape Town, Solly Luvhengo had already tried taking him to Pretoria, where he also did not find any suitors.
“We found the boy in Kakamas when he was quite young. We wanted to put him in the national team, but he was too young,” Luvhengo tells FARPost.
“So, we thought of finding an environment where he would get good development. The options were the School of Excellence or SuperSport United, but SuperSport were not interested.”
At Ajax, then a well-known nursery for budding gems, the sure-footed youngster struggled to turn heads. The coaches and scouts were not convinced that he was the real deal.
But Maliwa, an experienced scout with an eye for prodigious talent, was convinced that there was something more to this boy. He could not just let him go without another closer look.
“Every day I watched the player. I was watching Rivaldo the whole week. I saw something different. But eventually we let him go. I decided to call him back on another school holiday.
“He agreed to come in September 2012. After a week, he was told ‘not good enough’. Remember, he stayed eight hours from Cape Town in Kakamas,” he says.
In the end, Maliwa decided to roll the dice. He would take a punt on this youngster even though his success or failure would rest on his shoulders.
“I always had this thing – this player is good,” Maliwa says. “I said I’m bringing him for the last time. When I invited them for the final trial, the uncle initially refused saying he’s not good enough. I booked a bus for him and secured accommodation.
“He was training under David Nyathi. After a week he [Nyathi] said just make your own decision, so I said let me use my discretion as head of scouting.
“I said ‘if he’s not good now, this player will be good in future’. I had a meeting with George Comitis and Corne [Groendijt].”
In essence, the purpose of the meeting with his superiors was to put his head on the block about this unwanted talent.
“I said I’m making a decision, they told me they were going to sign him but if he flops, the blame would be on me. I signed the boy,” Maliwa says with pride.
When he finally signed in December, most people at Ajax, from the boardroom to the pitch, were convinced that Maliwa was backing the wrong horse.
“We signed him in December 2012, by March 2013 everyone was talking about Rivaldo in the corridors. The rest is history,” he says.
It took only three months for Rivaldo to convince them that the wizened scout had been right all along. Ajax had unearthed yet another gem.
While Maliwa might have been the first to Rivaldo’s sparkling talent, he would not be the last.
In the junior national team structures, Thabo Senong also noticed a lad with a game so polished it made a complete mockery of his young age.
“My first encounter with him was in 2012, we were preparing for the African Youth Qualifiers, Shakes Mashaba was head coach and I was assistant coach,” Senong tells FARPost from Lesotho, where he’s coaching their senior national team.
“He had just joined Ajax from Kakamas Sundowns which was playing in what is now called the ABC Motsepe League. We got him when he was just introduced to a very good programme, he was new in our Under 17 set up.”
In Senong’s eyes, the teenage starlet could read the game very well, strong in heading the ball and could build up play from the back.
He had incredible tactical abilities and the most perfect timing. “He added a lot of value to the team when we went to the Zone 6 Championships in Zambia, which we won,” Senong, pictured below, says.
Understandably, his international progression was as easy as his development at Ajax in 2013. After his national Under 17 stint, he was moved to the Under 20s.
He was part of the team that won the 2013 Cosafa Under 20 after beating guest nation Kenya in Maseru.
After making his PSL debut, he won Player of the Season and Players’ Player of the Season at the club’s end-of-season awards.
Despite those early accolades, it seemed as if Coetzee’s right foot had driven him to a career ending cul-de-sac after that failed medical at Celtic.
It was a setback that would simply have overwhelmed most lesser talents. Months of rehabilitation would follow the discovery of that latent injury.
When he eventually came back, it would not be long before the mega minds at Chloorkop would reincarnate him into a new player altogether.
“His passing range is unbelievable and we knew when we converted him into central midfield that very few midfielders have the passing range of Rivaldo,” Mamelodi Sundowns co-head coach Manqoba Mngqithi told SuperSport TV.
The man had put up a five-star performance as a holding midfielder in a 4-1 win over Orlando Pirates in a Nedbank Cup quarter-final clash at Loftus Stadium back in April.
“At times players can rush their decisions but Rivaldo is always relaxed and he is always making sure that his passes are as precise as we want.
“Credit should be given to the development that he got, all of the coaches who’ve worked with him must get credit,” Mngqithi said.
It was apt recognition for Maliwa, Senong and others, who had worked hard over the years in shaping the 24-year-old into a talent that seems at home in any patch of the football field. Whether in defence or in midfield, his presence has always been felt.
“He was coachable, humble, teachable and flexible, and easily adapted to different formations. I’m not surprised that they have opted to shift him to a different position at Sundowns,” says Senong.
Without a doubt, his game intelligence was way ahead of his peers.
“If he scored one, he would drop and try to protect that goal. He started as a striker, then a midfielder and defender. It was at Ajax where they said he must focus and master the central defence position, which I compliment Ajax for,” Senong adds.
After repeated triumphs when the odds have seemed firmly stacked against him, Coetzee, that indomitable footballer from Kakamas, looks set to take over on the big stage again.
“He looks born again as a footballer. I’m proud of him, I’ve worked with him at all levels – at the Rio Olympics, in Under 17s and at the Afcon.
“He has emotional and tactical intelligence; he maintains the same football actions throughout the game even when the referee’s decisions are going against him or when the score line is not looking good,” Senong says in praise of the defender-cum-midfielder.
At just 25 in October, the pride and joy of Kakamas undoubtedly has his best years ahead of him!
By Mthokozisi Dube