Thatayaone Ditlhokwe: The young boy born to lead

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Every fact is to be confirmed by the testimony of three witnesses, so says the holy writ. Yet in Thatayaone Ditlhokwe’s case it’s five credible witnesses who have watched him grow into the kingpin he has become at such a young age.

The prediction, from five separate interviews, is astonishingly identical – he will one day captain SuperSport United. Of course, he has already done what some of the world’s greatest footballers can’t claim to have accomplished.

Not so many soccer stars, if there are any at all, can claim to have captained their senior national team at the age of 20 (18 months ago), with less than 10 international caps under their belt.

But when your name is ‘TT’ it’s all a reality and nothing to fuss about at all. It’s a Thursday night and a FARPost crew has visited Botswana national team coach Adel Amrouche at the Radisson Blu Hotel, right in the heart of Sandton – Africa’s richest square mile – whose name is a blend of two of its suburbs, Sandown and Bryanston.

The intention of the visit is not even to discuss a young boy who is steadily on a path to build a name for himself in the South African game. But, from time to time, Amrouche, a Belgian of Algerian descent, has to attend to his cellphone and refers to his caller as ‘TT’ each time he answers.

From the way Amrouche addresses his caller, it is apparent that he is fond of this person. After an hour of the intermittent calls, we ask Amrouche who TT is.

“My (national team) captain,” the Zebras mentor says without revealing much. Moments later, TT calls again and this time Amrouche directs him to the table where we are seated.

At first glance, the thought that crosses the mind is ‘there is no way this little boy leads a national team with some experienced names like Tshakhuma Tsha Madzivhandila (TTM) forward Mogakolodi Ngele, former Free State Stars right back Simisane Mathumo and ex-Platinum Stars goalkeeper Kabelo Dambe.

Pleasantries are exchanged and Amrouche and his captain pull away to discuss ‘their business’. After some 15 minutes, Amrouche is back to the table and his skipper, who turned 22 in September, politely bids farewell to everyone in the table.

Curiously, the question is – is this the boy who captains the Zebras? Amrouche responds: “The kind of influence this young boy wields is amazing. At his age, his presence on the field makes a massive difference.”

He goes on to reveal how his absence in the first leg of the African Cup of Nations (Afcon) qualifier tie against Zambia last month affected them. The match, played in Lusaka, ended in a 2-1 loss. It sounds as though he is implying that if his beloved TT had been in the team, the Zebras would have won the match.

“He was injured in the first leg and couldn’t play, but in the second leg he insisted he wanted to play. We played him and he had a huge influence on the game,” says Amrouche, who took over the Zebras in August 2019.

That return leg ended 1-0 courtesy of a Mosha Gaolaolwe strike in Francistown. And, an assertive Ditlhokwe was the glue that kept the Zebras’ backline intact as they thwarted a Chipolopolo attack that boasted talents like Enock Mwepu, who turns out for Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg.

Zechariah Muzadzi, who was assistant coach during Ditlhokwe’s time at Township Rollers, reveals he spoke to the lanky defender ahead of the Zambia tie. The two seemingly enjoy cordial relations.

“He was actually keen to play in the first leg because he wanted to help the Zebras. So, it was not a surprise when he featured in the second leg,” Muzadzi tells FARPost.

Anyone who watched the second leg tie would agree the young man was something of a colossus in the Botswana rearguard. He guided the Zebras with the composure of an old hand.

Amrouche would be proud that he entrusted him with the armband ahead of his more experienced teammates. And from the look of things, it’s for him to keep.

Interestingly, as FARPost speaks to a few other people including two of his former teachers, it turns out he has always been thrust into captaincy.

Gabanathata Duncan Tshegofatso, who was a teacher and assistant coach at Nico United where it all started for Ditlhokwe, recalls asking players to vote for a captain ahead of a schools’ national team assignment. The vote was unanimous. There were no questions over who the leader among the boys was.

Besides leading them on the field of play, Tshegofatso recalls how the devout star would lead them in prayers, something Amrouche also alludes to.

“We made the boys vote for a captain and they all chose him. So, even his peers recognised that he was a leader,” Tshegofatso says in a telephonic interview.

In fact, Tshegofatso recalls how TT was the first name when he picked his starting line-up. It all made sense since his captain also offered him some versatility. He could slot coolly into the left-back position, and then when there was a crisis, he would man the defence from the centre.

“In Zimbabwe during a tournament in 2015 I realised we were lacking in midfield. He had played in defence in the first game, the next three games he played as a defensive midfielder,” Tshegofatso says, stressing that he went about his assigned role with the aplomb of a regular anchorman.

Top Botswana football scribe, Bongani Malunga, knows the qualities that allow the former Gaborone United (GU) star to easily adapt.

“He has pace, he is able to track back and cope with speedy players. He is a quick thinker and reader of the game and anticipates danger well and makes well-timed interceptions and tackles. He is neat in possession; he can play the modern style of playing from the back. His passing is top notch,” explains Malunga.

Interestingly, former Botswana national team coach Teenage Mpote, who held fort before Amrouche’s arrival, also made him captain of the Zebras on a few occasions.

In fact, when the Zebras beat Bafana Bafana on June 2, 2019 after a penalty shootout in Durban, he was handed the armband. The then 20-year-old responded with an equaliser in the 93rd minute when Bafana thought they were as good as through to the Cosafa Cup semi-final.

At the time, Muzadzi confirms, he was vice captain at Rollers just a little over a season after joining the club from crosstown rivals GU.

His journey to topflight football has been equally extraordinary as his remarkable ascendancy to the Zebras captaincy.

It all happened right in front of Tshegofatso’s eyes. Having worked with him at school and in the schools’ national team, he knew the kind of potential he possessed.

And so, one momentous day in 2015 – Nico United, based in the mining town of Selebi-Phikwe in central Botswana, had a crisis in defence. They were facing Mochudi Centre Chiefs, who were then on a rampage with talents like Pontsho Moloi, a former Bay United speedy and skilful winger.

“We had to play him in that game, and he was only 17. He marked Pontsho ‘Piro’ Moloi out of the game and he was named man of the match. From then on, he never looked back,” he recalls.

As soon as he was done with his form five, Kakanyo Emang, former sports master at Selebi-Phikwe Senior Secondary, who had been tasked by his dad to take care of him, suggested he move to the capital Gaborone.

“The idea was to have him move to Gaborone where he could pursue his studies because he was still young. So, I arranged a trial with Gaborone United and he impressed them after a week. We made sure we slotted in a clause in the contract that would allow him to continue studying,” Emang tells FARPost.

At GU, the Gulubane-born star spent a season and Rollers, the diamond-rich nation’s most successful club, came knocking.

“I told him to make that move,” says Emang, adding that “he’s a good listener and level-headed”.

Having interacted with so many other students, Emang whole-heartedly and unashamedly declares that the SuperSport defender is the only one with a place in his heart.

“He’s not related to me by blood, but he has a special place in my heart. I can’t say the same of any other student,” he says.

Muzadzi believes his development under SuperSport United coach Kaitano Tembo will be beneficial while Malunga tips the young defender to one day captain Matsatsantsa.

Amrouche takes it further and asserts that the boy ‘born to lead’ has what it takes to play in Europe.

“He definitely has all the right qualities to play in Europe. That’s where he is headed,” says Amrouche.

If the predictions are anything to go by, then Ditlhokwe is set for dizzy heights in the beautiful world of football.

RELATED STORY: Mogogi Gabonamong: Botswana’s man of many footballing firsts

By Mthokozisi Dube

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