Surprise Moriri: The man of second chances

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Sometimes all it takes is a second chance! Surprise Moriri’s spectacular rise in football is sheer attestation that at times all one needs is one more shot.

Twice in his football journey, it’s taken a second try for his career to either take flight or progress to the next level.

Of course, his first attempt was seemingly beyond the bounds of possibility, after a daring trial at Mamelodi Sundowns.

Imagine a 21-year-old chap plying his trade further down in the Vodacom League for little known Benoni side Wattville Watford Brothers walking into Chloorkop to have Dutch coach Clemens Westerhof, a ’94 AFCON winner with Nigeria, run the rule over him!

Even more interesting, a quick google search of his then club Wattville Watford Brothers, a name that sounds like some European sitcom, only brings up one Surprise Mohlomolleng Moriri. Indisputably, he is Wattville Watford Brothers’ singular claim to fame.

Some 19 years ago, Moriri, like any other ambitious soccer star, considered himself ready for the big stage.

“Before I went to trials at Silver Stars, I tried my luck at Sundowns and was unsuccessful,” he says as he reflects on the memorable 12 years he went on to enjoy at Chloorkop.

What then followed that ambitious trial, several months later, was a gruelling six-week test at Silver Stars. Needless to say, being told he didn’t make the grade at a star-studded club like the Downs was tolerable.

An attempt at a first division club desperate to progress to the topflight then made much more sense. But again, the man born exactly a day earlier than Brazil’s midfield magician Ronaldinho on March 20 1980, didn’t immediately strike the right chord at Silver Stars.

“I spent a couple of weeks there, the players loved me, but it seemed the technical team weren’t sure whether they wanted me or not,” he says, adding it was a gut-wrenching wait.

For a boy who had started playing football in Matibidi, a village in Thaba Chweu Local Municipality of Mpumalanga province, at the age of 6, 22 seemed a ripe age to burst, at least, into the first division.

At 13, he was already playing against people 12 years his senior albeit with his school shoes straight after classes.

“I remember one time I tore my school shoes playing football with older guys and my parents gave me a thorough beating,” he says as he laughs.

Now, going to Silver Stars highly recommended by an admirer Gift Mlambo and being told he had not done enough to earn himself a contract was heart-breaking. It didn’t matter that he was making steady progress in his financial management studies at Germiston College. All he wanted was a dance in the more competitive first division.

“Back home, I’d play football the whole day. I had so much love for the game,” he says.

But the setback at Silver Stars meant so many things to this enthusiastic fellow. It meant he probably wasn’t cut out for the big stage. It condemned him back to an unfashionable Vodacom League, a stage he strongly felt he had outgrown.

His dream of progressing to first division football was all up in the air. All Moriri needed was a second bite of the cherry.

Luckily, there was someone, besides him of course, who had a deep conviction that he had what it takes for the next level.

“I called Owen da Gama because I felt Surprise deserved one last look,” says Mlambo.

Da Gama, a man renowned for his eye for talent, remembers that phone call. He himself had not seen this trialist in action and depended on the eye of his assistant, Allan Freese.

The Highlands Park coach had only gotten a glimpse of Moriri in Springs at the invite of Mlambo prior to the Silver Stars trial. But that was only enough for an invite to trials where his trusted lieutenant Freese would then go over trialists with a fine-tooth comb while he prepared the team for the forthcoming campaign.

But the certitude in Mlambo’s voice swayed him that it was perhaps worth it to have a second look at this talent.

“Mlambo called me and I told him I didn’t see the boy. So we called him back and he trained with us for a while. Larry Brookstone was not happy, he felt he was too slow. He suggested if we played against a hard team like Robertsham Callies we’d see if he was really a good player,” Da Gama explains.

Robertsham Callies were notorious for taking no prisoners. They were ruthlessly aggressive each time they were on the field. That would be the ideal litmus test for Moriri, Brookstone thought. He had to prove that he had the mettle to play against the tough-tackling Robertsham Callies because the first division would be equally taxing.

Feeling all ripe and ready, Moriri was eager to grab this make up test by the scruff of the neck. Flopping for the second time was by no means an option. It would sentence him to life in the third tier of South African football.

With opinion divided on his footballing abilities, he knew he just had to make a statement. Of course, scoring a hattrick from his favoured attacking midfield position wasn’t the grand plan at all.

“I scored a hattrick and we won the game 4-1. They decided they’d give me a one-year deal,” says Moriri.

Interestingly, Brookstone, who had initially cast doubt over the wannabe star, was the same man to request that they substitute him after his third goal. “He didn’t even finish the game and Larry said ‘take him off we’re signing him’,” Freese tells FARPost.

That was the trigger for Moriri’s rise. He did not disappoint at Silver Stars as he enjoyed a breakout 2002/03 season. He was instrumental in helping them gain promotion to the PSL.

His knack for scoring goals from midfield became apparent at Silver Stars as he finished as top scorer for the club.

“His touches were really good; his technical abilities were one of the best. I remember his first touch and how he would get into the spaces,” Freese describes the Silver Stars prodigy, who went on to score 19 goals in 51 outings in his two seasons with the club.

Three years after retiring, Moriri still has conscious knowledge on the traits that made him a unique prospect in any team’s engine room. “I wasn’t the quickest player in terms of running but when it comes to thinking I was the quickest. I could see spaces, I could see moments, I could be in places where the ball would land. I was the luckiest guy,” says Moriri.

No wonder, former Bafana Bafana coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, who holds the record for attending the most World Cups as manager with six appearances, singled him out as “the only South African player with a football brain”.

His ingenuity in the middle of the park did not go unnoticed for too long as Mamelodi Sundowns came knocking to offer him a second shot. This time, he made no mistake, winning four League titles with the club and several individual accolades that include the 2005/06 Player of the Season and Players’ Player of the Season to show for his instant impact.

“The lesson for me is that God’s time is the best. My career blossomed at Sundowns. I was surrounded by top players in an environment that forced me to grow,” the former Bafana Bafana star says.

Even still, in the middle of all the material comfort at Chloorkop, he missed Da Gama’s high-spirited pep talks. “I used to miss his talks before training even when I was at Sundowns. Each player (who played under Da Gama) will probably tell you the same,” the soft-spoken Moriri says.

After a stint under the tutelage of Da Gama, Moriri says there was no way he would falter at the Brazilians. Rightly so, he is one of the few players who watched promising talents come and go at Chloorkop as he enjoyed his lengthy spell.

“Had Coach Owen not discovered me, I don’t think Sundowns would have given me an opportunity to play for them. He laid a good foundation for me,” he adds.

And in his school of thought, anyone who thrives under Da Gama will sail through anywhere else.

Never mind that Moriri went on to be coached by high profile coaches like Johan Neeskens, a man named one of the 125 greatest living footballers by FIFA in 2004, Hristo Stoichkov, the ’94 Ballon d’Or winner and France’s ’86 World Cup coach Henri Michel, none of them made him “think otherwise”.

And, who would forget the day he guarded the goals for the Downs after Rafael Dudamel limped off in a game against Kaizer Chiefs in 2006.

“Coach Owen instilled a hard-working spirit in everyone he worked with. So, my career kept on blossoming. Everything was because of the foundation,” says Moriri, who hung his boots at Highlands Park in 2017 and he’s now coaching the juniors at Downs.

His influence at Downs was telling, scoring 12 goals in all competitions to finish as the club’s top scorer in the 2005/06 season. In the 2006/07 season he eclipsed that, banging in 11 League goals and a further 3 in the CAF Champions League.

Moriri, who made his Bafana debut in a friendly match against Lesotho on 8 October 2003, scored his first international goal in the national team’s 3–0 win over Chad in the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.

But his biggest honour, he says, was being part of the Bafana squad for the 2010 FIFA World Cup on home soil, coming off the bench against Uruguay.

Undoubtedly, his story is that of a man who made the best of his second chances, etching his name in the history books of local football.

RELATED STORY: Esrom Nyandoro: The charismatic teenage actor turned football star

By Mthokozisi Dube

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