“The good Lord works in mysterious ways,” those are the words of Joey Antipas as he sums up how he stumbled upon Siyethemba Sithebe in 2016.
It’s as though he is implying that God often hides His blessing in trouble or trial, which makes it all the sweeter when it comes our way.
Sithebe is one quiet man. Often preferring to go about his business on the football pitch with such distinct excellence.
In essence, his feet do the talking! But when he does open up to talk about his inspiring football journey, you realise that ‘the only guarantee for failure is to stop trying’.
His is a courage that does not roar at all. It’s that quiet voice at the end of a futile day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’
Countless times, it has had to whisper to him, ‘let’s give it another try’. The many unsuccessful trials he has been to are testament to that.
For a boy whose journey literally started out in the grazing lands, there have been far too many obstacles along the way. They demanded that he push against the odds.
Sibonelo Khumalo, pictured below, whose father owned Mighty Heroes – an amateur football club in rural Newcastle [Lister Farm] in the 90s, recalls seeing six-year-old Sithebe, then known as Mnguni [his dad’s surname]. The year was 1999.
By the way, it was not a leather soccer ball nor was it on a pitch with nicely trimmed green turf. Young Sithebe was part of a group of boys tending their parents’ livestock in the pastures while entertaining themselves with a plastic ball. But that didn’t alter the joy of kicking it around not knowing when it would tear apart and need to be redone.
“We would go with a ball to play with my uncles while herding cattle. We would bet for 20 or 50 cent and the winner would take it all,” Sithebe tells FARPost.
So, his scouting by the Khumalos was in the most unorthodox of ways and places – the grazing lands. “He was very young at the time; he was six and he used to come to Lister Farm. I saw him there playing with other boys. He showed a lot of talent. He knew the basics of football,” Khumalo tells this publication in a separate interview.
What is surprising though is that Sithebe’s only experience was on gravel playing with a plastic ball. So, joining Mighty Heroes, whose different age-group teams shared two leather soccer balls, meant he had to adapt.
So impressive was the transition that Sithebe ended up playing above his age-group. Interestingly, Khumalo himself was turning out for his dad’s Under 17 team. But because of his passion for coaching, they would often let him mentor the younger boys.
“We had to share the same ball with the other age groups and have makeshift goalposts because the area we come from had no football facilities at the time,” adds Khumalo.
While Khumalo, who was 10 years Sithebe’s senior was also a tenderfoot at the time, he just knew there was something special about the boy. However, like everyone else, he would not have guessed how far he would go with his football.
And so, when Amajuba United later came for the boy after five years, there was no standing in his way. It was actually a step forward for his career since they were playing in the then Vodacom League [now ABC Motsepe].
For the next couple of years, he turned out for Amajuba. When he was done with school in 2010, it seemed football would be a thing of the past as he enrolled for an Electrical Engineering course at Umfolozi College [Eshowe Campus]. His studies left him no time to chase the spherical leather ball.
“I thought I would do well in Electrical Engineering,” Sithebe reveals.
His uncle, Musa Sithebe, then relates how there was no football club Eshowe, about 300 km from Newcastle, which kept him away from the game. However, on the few weekends he traveled to Newcastle – the third-largest city in the province of KwaZulu Natal – he would get a bit of a run.
“Eshowe there was no football team, so there wasn’t much football for him,” his uncle tells FARPost. That was until Cape Town All Stars came knocking wanting to have a look at him.
The unsuccessful two-week trial stint later became a blessing in disguise. It took him away from school and got him to a place where he so yearned to pursue a sport he was passionate about.
“I spent two weeks in Cape Town, and I wasn’t going to college, so I missed out a lot. When I returned, it was difficult to carry on,” Sithebe explains.
According to his uncle, Cape Town All Stars’ demand to have him surrender the management of his nephew collapsed the deal. But that was certainly not the end although the next couple of years would be challenging.
It would be one trial after the other with little success. Sadly, Sithebe can’t even explain what would go wrong each time a team ran the rule over him. While it seemed all bleak, with Electrical Engineering cast aside and football seemingly not working out, he had no choice but to hang on.
“He was invited for trials at Free State Stars, but Steve Komphela never got a chance to have a look at him. He later went to Maritzburg United when Steve [Komphela] moved there. Again, he never got a chance to look at him,” his uncle says, as Sithebe adds that he also tried his luck at Baroka FC and Witbank Spurs twice.
Funny enough, at a later stage, his talent and unmatched work rate was even acknowledged by Mamelodi Sundowns coach Manqoba Mngqithi, who was honest enough to tell him his central midfield position was congested at Chloorkop. But the much-awaited breakthrough was taking its precious time to come.
A recommendation by a friend landed him at a Johannesburg academy – Spurs Royal Dortmund – run by Dumisani Nkiwane.
“He was recommended by Lwazi [Mazibuko], so I kept him with the other boys at the academy. I recommended him to Witbank Spurs, but nothing came out of it,” Nkiwane tells FARPost.
When it was time, it took a mere phone call to Mbombela United by Nkiwane. That was it. The next thing, he was on the road to Mpumalanga. A week-long trial was enough to get him his first deal.
“I went with him there and we stayed for a week. The chairman was happy and so they signed him,” Nkiwane says.
Deep down in Nkiwane’s heart, he was so sure the boy was destined for elite football. He, however, thought the move to Mbombela, who had just been promoted to the first division in 2015, was merely a stepping stone.
Mbombela United co-owner at the time, Oupa Matsebula, says the 20-year-old midfielder was untried and obviously did not kick on instantly. “During his first season with us, he would often come on as a substitute because he was young. But he was hardworking, and he had stamina,” Matsebula tells FARPost.
After one season with the Mpumalanga outfit, he went back to try his luck at Witbank Spurs, who were also in the first division.
“He was in a rush to progress,” adds Matsebula. Again, his efforts hit blanks, eventually forcing him to go back to Mbombela, who welcomed him back with open arms.
Little did they know they were receiving a renewed, hungrier footballer.
Something good had happened. A new level of determination had been birthed in the man nicknamed Gqosha [after Lifa Gqosha, the former Kaizer Chiefs star].
“When he returned from Witbank, he was more determined. He worked his way into the starting line up,” Matsebula says.
In Sithebe’s book, a dream does not become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination, and hard work. After putting it all, 2016 was his breakthrough year.
While becoming a vital cog in Tingwenyama’s engine room, he caught the eye of KZN rivals AmaZulu and Golden Arrows. But it was Usuthu, who landed his signature.
Antipas was busy studying videos of AmaZulu’s opponents. All he wanted to do was prepare adequately for their next match.
And while scanning through that video of a previous Mbombela United match, he spotted a gem. This gemstone had been repeatedly rejected by others.
“I watched a video of Mbombela prior to our game against them when plotting how to play against them and I singled him (Sithebe) as their threat. We played them and won that game.
“I was impressed with his work rate and bundles of energy he possessed. I spoke to the AmaZulu bosses and we signed him on a pre-contract three months later [in January 2017],” Antipas says from his Bulawayo, Zimbabwe base where he coaches Premiership side Chicken Inn FC.
It didn’t even matter that Sithebe, who made his Bafana Bafana debut last year, picked an injury weeks after that. “When he signed the pre-contract, he was injured. I knew he was a top player who would explode if given the platform.”
Sure, the herd-boy, whose journey started in the pastures, has exploded and continues to carve a niche for himself in the topflight!
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By Mthokozisi Dube