You just didn’t have to watch him over and over to know he was a class above the rest. Just a glimpse of his cultured left foot at work was enough to convince you Roger Feutmba was in a league of his own.
Natasha Tsichlas, the Iron Lady of local football, does not throw around praise willy nilly. But when it comes to Feutmba’s left foot, she waxes poetic. Unstoppably and understandably so.
The praise is not without merit.
Feutmba’s educated left foot was a thing of rare beauty. For those that supported Downs, it was a joy to watch as he carved open opposition teams, creating chance after chance. For rival fans on the other hand, watching as that merciless left foot butchered tried and tested defensive formations brought on fear and admiration in equal measure.
Watching that left foot destroy your team was actually a thing of terrifying beauty. As the man conducting the symphony at the heart of Sundowns’ midfield, the former Cameroon international was swiftly christened ‘The General’.
The nickname was so befitting, given that he was a natural leader who commanded respect amongst the superstars that graced Downs’ line-up in the 90s. The fact that he played like he had eyes at the back of his head was a bonus.
“He had the ability to take leadership on the field and control the game. He made a lot of these strikers look good. Raphael Chukwu got most of his goals via Roger. This is the reason Sundowns was a great team and won three titles consecutively,” Tsichlas tells FARPost, admitting it was a pity that South Africans only saw the Cameroonian in the twilight of his career.
For Tsichlas, the affair with Feutmba’s left foot had begun as love at first sight. The man who hails from Douala, Cameroon’s largest city and economic capital, had come as part of his country’s national team as they played in a four-team tournament that was meant to welcome Bafana Bafana back into the international fold after decades of isolation.
There was joy and jubilation across the land as Bafana Bafana narrowly beat Cameroon 1-0 at Kings Park. The boys were back.
But sitting in the stands that day, Tsichlas saw a diamond sparkle in the middle of the park.
“The first time Bafana played international football against Cameroon I was in Durban. I was on one side of the stadium and Angelo (my husband and then chairman of Sundowns) was sitting on the other end. We often did that when we watched football and we’d talk afterwards and see which players impressed us,” explains Tsichlas, who was Sundowns’ managing director at the time.
But on that day, she just couldn’t wait for the final whistle to hear if her hubby had been impressed by the same player. Deep down, she hoped it would be a consensus or else it would have been difficult to bring this talent to Chloorkop without the conviction of her partner.
“During the game I immediately spotted Roger. So, I called Angelo immediately because I couldn’t wait for the end of the game. His response was ‘eish this number 6’. Roger was wearing number 6, I remember very well. It was an unbelievable feeling I had when I saw Roger,” she says with sincere admiration.
Having seen a gem shine right in front of her, Tsichlas showed her renowned verve and uncompromising nature, storming the Cameroonian dressing room as she demanded the man wearing jersey number 6.
“I wouldn’t take no for an answer at the entrance of the dressing room, I insisted I’d not leave without seeing him. It helped that we were at home. I couldn’t leave it till tomorrow because another club would have taken him,” she says.
Feutmba was already earning decent money in Belgium where he was turning out for KV Kortrijk, a club based in the Flemish province of the West Flanders, and it would take more than a few gold coins to convince him to move back to Africa. Sundowns have acquired a reputation for being generous with their purse in recent years but even back then they could not let money stand in the way of a good thing.
“Roger came out; he couldn’t speak English. So, he said ‘ok, good money I come’. We then spoke to the owner of the team (KVK) and we sent him the tickets and he came to South Africa. I couldn’t wait to have him at Sundowns,” she says.
Feutmba, who presently resides in Birch Acres, Kempton Park, a city in Ekurhuleni in the Gauteng province, also remembers how the deal was struck.
“What helped was that the Belgium team was struggling financially so it made things easy,” says Feutmba, who started his career with Union Douala in his native country.
While money was a motivator, a return to the sunny skies of Africa was also a good proposition. Belgium had simply become too cold and too depressing for the Cameroonian.
“Roger had enough in Belgium, he wanted a change of environment,” Tsichlas recalls. “Belgium was cold, the people were cold, it wasn’t the same environment. He didn’t feel the same, he wanted to be here.”
When he came to the southern tip of the African continent, it became clear that Feutmba was cut from a different fabric. Silky and calm, he quickly became a distinctive figure in the Brazilians engine room.
His former teammate Themba Mnguni, pictured above, has not forgotten how they underestimated Feutmba’s deadly left foot on his first day at training.
“When he first came to Sundowns we judged him, we thought he did not know football. We had a tendency where we would give a new teammate difficult passes just to judge them by their ball control. (Joel) ‘Fire’ Masilela and I agreed to do it to Roger. We gave him a strong pass and he controlled it nicely. We realised he was good. We continued and gave him another one and he said ‘not me, my friend’. We realised he was gifted,” Mnguni says.
For those that knew him prior to his arrival, his immense talent was not surprising. After all, it took something special to be part of that Cameroon squad that went on a fairy-tale run in the 1990 FIFA World Cup, brushing aside Argentina on the merry way before they were knocked out in the quarterfinals. In a squad in which a 38-year-old Roger Milla was the star attraction, Feutmba was one of the youngest at 22. It was that sort of accomplishment that won him the admiration of fellow stars at Chloorkop.
“I had massive experience coming from the World Cup and AFCON, I was a leader,” says the man who first tasted league title triumph in ’90 back in his homeland. “I was ready and knew how a professional soccer player needed to behave. I contributed a lot to make my teammates understand what they were doing was not just for leisure, it was a job. We were doing it for a living.”
In the era way before the current obsession with stats and data, Feutmba was raking up the assists, laying it on a platter for goal-hungry strikers to finish up.
In fact, Daniel ‘Mambush’ Mudau, revered as one of the PSL’s most prolific goal scorers, once told a local newspaper that most of his goals came from the accurate passing of Feutmba.
“When Roger joined Sundowns, he added another dimension to the team and made us the finished article. It was a marvel to play alongside him and I would have loved to have had more opportunities with the big man,” said Mudau.
His former Cameroon teammate, Ewane Jacob Stephne, tells FARPost from his Belgium-base that he was also a beneficiary of that wicked left foot.
“I played with him when we were in Cameroon. It was as if he had four eyes when he got the ball,” says the former Indomitable Lions striker. “I remember the one time in Belgium when his team won 4-0 and he provided all four assists.”
Fans loved Feutmba and it was no surprise when a voting poll by a local publication declared him the greatest player of the PSL era in 2014. While he was admired in the stands, those who shared the pitch with him also respected the Cameroonian and he was justifiably declared the PSL Players’ Player of the Season in 1999. Leading from the middle, Feutmba, who is currently not involved in football, guided Downs to three consecutive titles, with the first coming in 1997.
“It was a good team that we had, I always give credit to Natasha for assembling a team like that,” says the father of two whose eldest son got married in Belgium recently. The Tshwane giants boasted fine talents like Mnguni, Raphael Chukwu, Lovers Mohlala, Alex Bapela, Masilela, Eric Ramasike and Charles Motlhohi.
“If you’re good your teammates will always open the door for you. They opened the door for me and welcomed me like one of their own. Football is a team sport; so I was lucky to be surrounded by quality players with the right attitude. That was important.”
For Tsichlas, Feutmba rates among the best 10 footballers she has ever watched.
“Today you don’t see players like this. You don’t find those so much nowadays,” she says, adding that if he had come to South Africa earlier, he would have been snapped up by a European club.
18 years after he hung his boots, Mzansi has not seen anything like him again, at least according to Mnguni and Tsichlas. That mesmerising left foot, that assured first touch, that commanding spirit in the middle of the park…there truly is only one Roger Feutmba.
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By Mthokozisi Dube