Tapelo Xoki: The gem that emerged out of a humiliating 17-0 defeat!!!

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Mzonzima Anderson Xheshisa recalls seeing young Tapelo Xoki [then Nyongo] walking off that Old Mutual pitch in Pinelands, Cape Town, his head hung with shame.

The teenager just had to be ashamed. An Old Mutual Academy side made up of boys, a year or two younger than him, had ruthlessly clobbered them 17-0.

17-year-old Xoki was the boy marshalling the very same Goal Hunters defence that leaked a degrading 17 goals. Four or five goals would have been understandable, but a whole 17?

Xheshisa, affectionately known as ‘Mr A’ in football circles, had observed the Khayelitsha-born youngster from a distance, and was so convinced he was a decent talent.

But, how on earth would he recommend him to the academy after such a drubbing?

“I’d been watching him from a distance ekasi and I knew there was something [talent]. Even after losing, I invited him to come and train with the boys at the academy,” says Xheshisa, pictured below, who was the head scout at the academy.

As soon as he made it known to his colleagues that Xoki and two other boys would be joining them for training the following Monday for further assessment, there was unyielding opposition.

Understandably so, it made no sense to them that any of the boys from that hapless team were worth a second look. But, Xheshisa was so sure he had seen something.

For teenage Xoki, nicknamed ‘Baby Tower’, it was either football or nothing else. He had always made it clear that the path he wanted to take was football. Even his school teachers and classmates were aware of his utmost dream.

“In class he would sit right at the back by the corner with two of his friends and when asked what career path he wanted to pursue he would simply say football,” Mbuyi Hlomela, pictured below, who was a senior teacher at Thembelihle Senior Secondary School in Khayelitsha, tells FARPost.

While the 17-0 drubbing was a young reality check for him, it never sapped any of the passion he had for the game.

Indeed, the fact that he had been invited to the Old Mutual Academy was a bit of a reprieve. But Xheshisa’s colleagues never ever held back, they kept condemning the move to bring a ‘bunch of losers’ to the academy.

It actually came to a point that the other two boys from Khayelitsha gave up after just a week. They just couldn’t take it.

For spirited Xoki, it would be a straight three weeks attending sessions knowing pretty well he was unwelcome.

“I would take the train just to get to training every day and I’d get back home quite late. One Friday I got home at 11pm and had to attend the Nike trials on Saturday morning at 7am,” the soft-spoken defender tells FARPost.

Seeing his colleagues were not budging on his issue, Xheshisa gave in to the pressure and decided he would not force the boy on Old Mutual Academy.

Coincidentally, around the same period George Dearnaley was on the verge of buying a status in the ABC Motsepe League. On the other hand, Old Mutual was planning to sell.

While in the process of buying, Dearnaley, who grew up in Montclair, a southern suburb of Durbansought to unearth a few gems that he would draft into his squad from the township.

He then approached Xheshisa, a man whose list of football prodigies is endless. At the back of his mind, the revered kasi scout had his beloved ‘Baby Tower’.

“When George came to watch the boys [Old Mutual reserve side against Kensington FC], I sat very far from him so that I would not influence his selection.

“Straight after the game, he came to me and said, ‘I want that defender’, and I said ‘that’s Tapelo Nyongo’,” an elated Xheshisa tells FARPost.

At least someone was beginning to see what had impressed him. Dearnaley, however, admits the boy was a diamond in the rough.

“He had been released by the Old Mutual Academy because they didn’t think he was good enough.

“Tapelo was 17 when he arrived, but you could see there was something. He was a little bit clumsy. He was growing taller and his feet becoming bigger. We gave him a few months to get used to his new body,” Dearnaley, pictured below, tells FARPost.

Perhaps the growth spurt was the reason he was almost ruled out of the Nike Chance programme as they questioned his age.

Eventually he was one of the six kids picked in the Western Cape for the Nike Chance – a football talent search that sought to give young amateur, unsigned footballers the opportunity to prove themselves on an elite stage.

“I had to ask the school for his records when there were claims that he was over-age. We got the records and he was allowed to take part in the programme,” says Mtutuzeli Hlomela, who was Nike’s brand product specialist at the time.

Xoki says the move to join Dearnaley was exactly what the doctor ordered. His development fast-tracked under the watchful eye of the former AmaZulu forward.

“It was in 2012 when I started playing in the ABC Motsepe League. It was a critical time in my development,” he tells FARPost.

Before that, he had turned out for amateur teams including CT Liverpool, West Coast, Silver City, who were part of the LFA in Khayelitsha and Eleven Express in the Castle League.

At the end of 2013, he was sent to Bloemfontein Celtic. While things didn’t work out in the Free State, his parents started seeing the football thing was serious.

“I stayed in Bloemfontein for three weeks, the deal was that I’d play in the ABC League while they monitored me. But George thought I had to stay in Cape Town. So I went back to Cape Town.”

The 1992 NSL Golden Boot winner with 20 league goals, Dearnaley, then organised a trial with his former club Usuthu early in 2014. For some reason, the first team coach Craig Rosslee couldn’t have a look at the young defender.

Luckily, AmaZulu’s head of development Mark Kruner was also involved in the Nike Chance programme where he would further assess the youngster.

“Mark was head of development at the time and so he said he would monitor my progress. He was there when we were doing the tests. He monitored my progress. I even met Benni McCarthy at the Nike Chance for the first time,” adds the lanky defender.

Academics made a last gasp effort to snatch him away from football. Interestingly, his dad was pressuring him to at least go to varsity before turning pro.

The old man was even quick to pay the registration fees for him to enrol for a sports management course at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT).

“The scenery [at CPUT] was just not where I wanted to be,” Xoki says jokingly. Exactly a fortnight after the initial trial, the Durban outfit invited him for a friendly match after which a decision to sign him was made.

The agreement was that he would join the team ahead of the 2014/15 season. That arrangement would give him time to push his studies a little.

Alas, two months after penning the pre-contract, his new club asked him to come earlier than planned.

It meant he had to drop out of school after just a handful of lectures. Dad was seething, yet the boy’s mind was made up. After all, he had worked so hard – through all the rejection – to get to that point.

“My dad was like ‘what about school?’. He didn’t understand how that would work,” says Xoki.

He just had to stand his ground and make this football thing work. Steve Bezuinhout, the man who later took over from Kruner, says once he joined the club it was difficult to keep the then 19-year-old Xoki in the reserve side. He had presence on the field, repeatedly says Bezuinhout.

“For me the one thing that struck me immediately was his leadership. He had presence on the field. That was probably the biggest thing.

“He looked like the only player on the field. He had a real presence. He was brave and as a defender you look and think he would be important,” Bezuinhout tells FARPost.

The 1.85m tall defender made his Absa Premiership debut for Usuthu during the club’s 5-2 victory over SuperSport United in Pretoria six years ago.

He went on to make 10 more league appearances for AmaZulu and netted once against Maritzburg United in the final game of the season.

Despite Usuthu’s unfortunate demotion from the PSL at the end of his maiden season, it was so clear that he was destined to become a key player for the club.

The promising centre back managed to establish himself in the club’s starting line-up during the 2015/16 season, making 18 starts in the National First Division (NFD).

He was deservedly handed the captain’s armband, aged 21, ahead of the 2016/17 NFD season after building a commanding reputation in the team.

Under his captaincy, Usuthu mounted a serious challenge for promotion to the PSL – making 25 league appearances and notching five goals in the process.

Unluckily, they narrowly missed out on promotion on the last day of the season, but bounced back to the topflight after purchasing Thanda Royal Zulu’s PSL status.

Since then, his performances in the heart of the Benni McCarthy-coached side’s rear-guard have been pivotal.

He has been a vital cog in their fairy-tale run this season under the tutelage of the Bafana Bafana record goalscorer, McCarthy.

But in the book of his dreams, the 26-year-old wants to lift silverware and don the Bafana Bafana jersey.

RELATED STORY: Siyethemba Sithebe: The rejected gem that’s become Usuthu’s cornerstone

By Mthokozisi Dube

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