Tera Maliwa: The eagle-eyed scout unearthing football’s hidden gems


Growing up in Khayelitsha, located on the Cape Flats, sandwiched by the Table Bay and False Bay, Thembela ‘Tera’ Maliwa had a dream to make it as a football star.

After all, several youngsters like Benni McCarthy had emerged from his hometown – Cape Town – and were making waves.

For the longest time, that dream never looked like anything far-fetched. But aged 24, having had stints with a few amateur sides, Maliwa decided to call it quits. However, his love for the game, birthed at age 11, remained intact.

One sweet afternoon, he walked into a school in his neighbourhood, Uxolo High School, to watch boys from ekasi tussle it out against Kwamfundo High School.

“I realised Uxolo started the game without a teacher [coach], and because they came from my area, I decided to coach them. The coach came in the second half and we were leading 3-0. So, he asked me to help him whenever he was not available,” Maliwa tells FARPost.

That marked the beginning of his flirtation with coaching. Interestingly, the captain in that team was Alfred Ndengane, who now plies his trade at Limpopo-based topflight side TTM.

“We won that game 4-1. It was a good start to my coaching; I was over the moon,” he recalls.

For the next three years, he continued honing his coaching skills by mentoring Uxolo boys before another happenstance landed him at Vasco da Gama in 2005.

“One of the boys from my area was playing for Vasco da Gama. I accompanied him just to watch him train. For some reason, the coach had to leave before the end of the game, he asked me to take over for the last 15 minutes.

“I decided to come back on Monday because the boy had to train again. The guy who was the general manager asked me if I wanted to coach the Under 15 B-team. I agreed,” he says.

After doing well with the Under 15 B-side, he was handed the Under 17 B-team the following year. But the ‘thankless’ Vasco job meant commuting for hours using the train, getting home as late as 11pm sometimes.

His twin sister, Tembi, remembers those days vividly. Of course, a lot of things didn’t make sense to the family, but they gave him their blessing.

“We allowed him to do what he loved. The thinking was that it would keep him away from social ills. We could see he was passionate about football,” she tells FARPost.

But there was no pay to show for it. Mom, who worked as a domestic worker, would often give him R10 for a return ticket for the train.

Nonetheless, he started enjoying coaching there because it was boys from all corners of the Mother City. “My friends thought I was wasting my time because ‘white people’ would not reward me. But I knew what I wanted.”

He has not forgotten how the arrival of the last train in Parow, where Vasco trained, at 7pm meant dropping everything – cones, balls and bibs – because missing it would spell disaster. That was not just for him, but every boy who came from ekasi.

In his third year at Vasco, the late Ian Towers, who was running the Tiny Tots programme at Ajax Cape Town, needed someone to help him scout for township talent aged between 10 and 12.

The programme unearthed talents like Cape Town City utility player Abbubaker Mobara and Riyad Norodien, who is currently at Cape Town Spurs.

That is where searching for that one hidden rough diamond to be polished for display in some of the world’s major arenas started.

Thabiso ‘Shooz’ Mekuto, who recommended Maliwa to Ajax, says he had an eye for neglected talent in the townships.

“Tera was that link of those players in the townships who didn’t get a chance,” Mekuto tells FARPost.

After a while coaching at Vasco and helping Ajax, he eventually left them to join the Urban Warriors. A marketing job at Ajax at least gave him a bit of income.

“I was able to rent a place near Ikamva. I then volunteered to work as the Ajax Under 15 assistant coach [under Shawn Bester]. I made it clear I didn’t want to be paid because I knew they weren’t looking for someone,” he says.

But after paying rent, he’d literally be left with R400. The struggle was far from over. “I’d make means to get to work,” he adds.

In that Under 15 team were the likes of Swallows midfielder Bantu Mzwakali and Maritzburg United’s Travis Graham. That stint, he says, helped him understand what an Ajax player was.

The following year, he moved to the Under 17 team, traveling the world with players like Thulani Hlatshwayo, Thulani Serero, Mkhanyiseli Siwahla and George Maluleka.

“We learnt how they did things at Ajax Amsterdam, so we brought it [the methods] back home.”

Marteen Stekelenburg, who was the club’s head of youth, remembers Maliwa approaching him asking for the head of scouting job. The position was left vacant after the departure of John Rawley.

After initially turning him down, he was later impressed by a 22-paged scouting proposal he put together.

“He was ever willing to learn. He’d sacrifice to make sure he develops himself,” Stekelenburg tells FARPost from his Netherlands base where he is currently working as an assistant manager for Netherlands.

His appointment meant he would become the first black head scout at the now defunct club. But that didn’t matter to him, he was just a man on a mission.

During Stekelenburg’s time, Maliwa was part of the popular ‘First Touch’ programme. It optimised the ability to spot talented young players with great passing and ball control superiority between ages 9-11 across Cape Town.

Without a doubt, for countless years, its success remained the cornerstone of Ajax’s youth scouting fabric. “Those players are 20-21 now. Jayden Adams [Stellenbosch], Luke Le Roux and Tashreeq Matthews, who play in Sweden [for Varbergs BoIS] are some of them.”

He attributes much of his growth in scouting to Corné Groenendijk, who replaced Stekelenburg seven months after his appointment.

“If it were not for the way Corné Groenendijk treated me, I’d not be where I am. Every 30 minutes he would knock at my door. At some point, I thought he hated me. But he wanted things to be done properly. He was always pushing me.”

One of the most taxing, but fulfilling projects he had to do under Groenendijk was creating a new scouting policy for Ajax. It took him five months to prepare the 52-paged policy.

“One page would take five days to put together,” he recalls. Groenendijk remembers how meticulous he was with that assignment.

“It was a good thing Ajax spent 20 years in Cape Town, it gave people insight into how they are run. He was lucky you be part of that process.

“But, not only was he lucky, he spent time and energy developing himself. He was not waiting on his seat. He’s always looking for new information,” Groenendijk told FARPost from his Amsterdam base.

When his time was up at the Urban Warriors, he embarked on a learning expedition, interning at Dutch clubs SC Heerenveen, Ajax Amsterdam and AZ Alkmaar over a period of 16 months.

“I realised they were the best in youth development. So, in 2015 and 2016, I was in Holland. I was attached to SC Heerenveen where I spent two months. I then went to Ajax Amsterdam doing scouting with them to check how they do things.” His last stop was at AZ Alkmaar.

Upon his return, he visited Ghana where he spotted 22-year-old Richard Ofori turning out for Wa All Stars FC, a club based in Greater Accra.

Walter Steenbok and Pitso Mosimane, who were both at Mamelodi Sundowns at the time, recommended him to the club.

Steenbok says they were attracted by his track record. “He had done well at Ajax as a scout, and he has a proven record of scouting good players like Rivaldo Coetzee.

“He understands the scouting process, he has also been trained by Ajax to perform the role. He’s also dedicated and travels quite extensively. He doesn’t shy away from responsibility,” Steenbok tells FARPost.

In July 2017, he joined Sundowns and says Chloorkop has been an awesome learning environment, thanks to the tools the club provides for scouting.

In his travels, he has had the privilege to learn from accomplished men like top Dutch scout Piet de Visser, who unearthed talents like Neymar, Kevin De Bruyne, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Ronaldo and David Luiz.

“He’s a top scout, very good. I had coffee with him in 2015 in Amsterdam, he brought me his book where he wrote his notes. He’s got a PA, they have a sign to track a player. He has a special way of finding players.”

Maliwa, who has the knack of seeing a player’s future rather than their early shortcomings, is continues to fine tune his eye for gems.

“I see a player in the future, I don’t look at a player that will help you today, I see a player who will help you in the next three to five years. Rivaldo was not considered as good, but I saw a brilliant player in future.”

As the journey continues, Maliwa, who recently turned 40, insists he wants to use his eagle eye to spot talents for a European club one day.

RELATED STORY: Walter Steenbok: The devoted apostle to the football scout cult

By Mthokozisi Dube

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