Steve Lekoelea: The man haunted by the PSV ‘what if’

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Sometimes all a young man needs is just a little reminder to keep reaching for the stars!

Like life, football is no different – it often leaves us with a trail of ‘what ifs’.

What if Sibusiso Zuma had signed for Arsenal at the peak of his career in 2003 when Arsene Wenger wanted to prise him away from his cherished FC Copenhagen?

What if Lucas Radebe, who ultimately ended his Leeds United career without a major club honour, had signed for Sir Alex Ferguson’s ’99 treble-winning Manchester United?

One man who has dreadfully lived with that question is Steve Lekoelea after a botched potential move to Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven some 24 years ago.

What if he signed for PSV – one of Netherlands’ big three clubs that have dominated the Eredivisie?

With his dribbling prowess and eye for a pass there is no doubting he’d have made a good teammate to Philip Cocu, who went on to captain La Liga giants Barcelona, as well as Jaap Stam and Ruud van Nistelrooy, who both went on to have bright careers at Manchester United.

After attracting PSV’s attention when he excelled in the Under 20 World Youth Cup held in Malaysia in 1997, Chippa had the opportunity to turn out for the Boeren (the peasants in English), but in an inconceivable move, he turned down the offer.

The interest by PSV made all sense for a boy who took the PSL by storm after making his professional debut at the age of 15. He was a regular feature in the junior national teams. Those that already followed the domestic game closely in the ‘90s will remember him as the Moroka Swallows teenager, then known as Steve Motsiri, who terrorised an ageing Neil Tovey with his trickery. A joke is even made about the number of the teenage starlet’s jerseys Tovey tore as he battled to contain him.

That youngster, affectionately known as Kideo, was snapped up by Orlando Pirates after just a season and became famous as Steve Lekoelea. Chippa had it all. Blessed with speed, gifted with an unparalleled vision and enamelled with superior technical brilliance, the Sebokeng-born star had the world at his feet. Very few would dare argue; he was destined for dizzy heights.

His football talent was undeniable from an early age and he cemented that when he became the League’s youngest goal-scorer shortly after his 16th birthday. Dirk Advocaat, who was at the helm of PSV at the time, had every reason to want this starlet, who was fast building a reputation as a top footballer in South Africa, in his team.

But it was just not to be.

The typical explanation people have been accustomed to is that the former Swallows and Pirates playmaker became homesick. But there was more to it. The trip was messy from the onset after Lekoelea almost boarded a wrong plane at the Johannesburg International Airport (now OR Tambo).

“It was difficult. I left South Africa for Holland on my own. It was my first time to travel outside the country alone,” says Lekoelea, who was 18 at the time.

Like many first timers, he didn’t know where to go once he was dropped off at the airport. A series of directions from different people eventually led him to the wrong boarding gate.

“I was going to get into the wrong flight, I totally got lost but luckily I was redirected just in time to board the right flight,” he says.

His struggle got even worse the moment he touched down Eindhoven Airport, located 7.6 km west of what was about to be his new home in North Brabant. “When I arrived at the airport in Holland, I didn’t even know where to go. People seemed to be taking two different directions and I didn’t know who to follow,” says the former midfield maestro.

As if his battles weren’t enough, in Eindhoven – Holland’s fifth-largest city – the dominant language is Dutch. “The language barrier messed me up, I couldn’t even communicate with anyone because they speak Dutch,” he explains.

His former Buccaneers teammate, Tebogo Moloi, who has previously had a chat with him about that trip, understood his struggles. “I knew Steve couldn’t utter a word in Afrikaans (90 to 95 percent of Afrikaans is ultimately of Dutch origin) and coming from South Africa, language was always going to be an issue,” Moloi, who had stints in Turkey and Colombia in the 90s explains. A few years ago, Chippa told a local radio station that people in Holland were speaking a funny type of Afrikaans.

After eventually finding his way and linking up with a club representative sent to pick him up, the shock continued. It was a whole different world, he says. “It was a great club, looked like they had a rich history that I’d have loved to be a part of. PSV were so good to me, they tried making my stay comfortable. But I got homesick and struggled to settle in. After a week, they let me come back home after I requested to leave,” Lekoelea says.

Moloi, who credits Augusto Palacios for helping him settle in Turkey where he had a spell with Gaziantepspor during the 1993-94 season, says it can be difficult to settle in a new environment especially for a youngster.

“I had Augusto Palacios come to Turkey to spend two weeks with me. He knew my coach and gave him pointers on how he could get the best out of me. I found that really helpful in my relationship with the new coach and getting me to understand the Turkey culture,” says Moloi, who was 24 when he moved to Turkey.

He understands how much Chippa has been judged for “missing out on a lifetime opportunity”. And he knows of those singing the fault-finding tune that goes ‘these players are spoilt’. “People forget I wanted to come back from Turkey after two weeks,” reveals Moloi.

He believes if a young Lekoelea had someone who understood Holland accompanying him, he’d have settled and performed well. “If you’re going to send a youngster to Denmark today, you’d do well to have a guy like Sibusiso Zuma, who is respected there, accompany him. It will help the player settle and the new club to receive him with respect,” adds Moloi.

Over two decades later after that forgettable week, Lekoelea, now 41, says he has no regrets. “Life is like that, these things do happen and I have no regrets because I had a good 10 years at Orlando Pirates,” he says.

A man who shared a room with Lekoelea at Pirates during pre-match camps, Andries Sebola, adds the Eindhoven weather also made things difficult for him. The southern part of Holland, where Lekoelea was, does not typically bring any snow during winter, but the chill winds make it feel extremely cold.

“He told me about the weather conditions, and he wasn’t used to staying alone. He’s someone who loves to stay with people, so it was difficult being alone. I know the issue of language from my 8 months in China. I literally had an interpreter and it was tough. You feel lonely. I tried to adjust but it was difficult,” says the man popularly known as Local is Lekker.

Lekoelea takes solace in the trophies he amassed in the decade he spent with the Sea Robbers. He was part of the Soweto giants’ side that won the 2000/01 and the 2002/03 League titles. He had won the Bob Save Super Bowl, the BP Top 8 and the CAF Super Cup all in ’96.

But before that, he had lived his dream – turning out for his childhood club Swallows.

“It felt like I was dreaming when I was first told of Swallows’ interest in me. I couldn’t believe I was about to play for a team I supported as a small boy,” says Lekoelea, whose talent was identified while playing schools football.

A season after joining The Birds, things would even get better as Pirates boss Irvin Khoza approached him. “I earned R1,243.65 at Swallows and I remember Irvin gave me R5 000 to buy myself a drink the first time we met. I realised the pastures were greener on the other side,” says Lekeolea, who featured in Mzambiya’s smash hit ‘Jersey Number 10’ in 2000.

As his game matured, fans started witnessing his dazzling footwork and trickery. He’s the same man who popularised moves such as the ‘Johnny Walker’ and step-overs. “I had to grow at Pirates because I was surrounded by top players and that pushed me,” he says.

He then developed the knack for scoring free kicks. But he recalls how it was a struggle to be given the responsibility to take them in his early days in domestic football.

In the 1999-2000 season, he hit double digits for the Bucs, scoring 10 goals from midfield. Unfortunately, Lekoelea couldn’t impose himself for the national team, only managing 10 appearances for Bafana Bafana. After a decade at the Buccaneers, dogged by off-field discipline issues, Lekoelea moved on to Maritzburg United and then Platinum Stars.

But the what if still lingers today. The PSV opportunity could have easily changed his life, but the man chooses to forget about it and look to the future.

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By Mthokozisi Dube

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