Thabo Nodada’s incredible football journey is true testament that all you need, at times, is just that lil’ flicker of hope!
Growing up in Ixopo, south of Durban, Nodada knew fully well of the existence and supremacy of two Soweto giants – Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs.
There was no way he could avoid football at all. The game was placed right in front of him on a platter.
As if to set him up for a love affair with the world’s most beautiful game, his grandmother bought a house right in front of Morningside Stadium in Ixopo a few months after his birth in 1995.
Her grandson would literally have to take 20 steps and he would be in the football ground.
And so, when he was a young boy, he would frequent the stadium and watch the bigger boys chase the spherical leather ball. Of course, different players would take turns to revel in a game they all treasured.
But there was one guy who still gets the talented midfielder waxing lyrical when he talks about him. Sizwe Makhanya was his name.
No need to google the name, perhaps his singular role was to inspire young Nodada and move on to other things in life.
Makhanya even turned down an offer from Maritzburg United at some point, but he had already sown the seed in his young admirer.
“I used to watch him play for Ixopo United. It was just a walking distance from where we stayed. His confidence made football look so easy,” he tells FARPost.
With each year, he inched closer and closer to taking part in those games. Each time the teams needed an extra head, he and his friends would be thrown into the fray.
Obviously, there was not much they could do against bigger opponents besides trying to intercept play, win the ball and pass it to their older teammates. Little did he know, a skill was gradually being instilled!
But at that stage, all that mattered ‘was the joy of just running around’.
“Your job was to mark and pass the ball to the older guys,” he recalls with delight.
His inspiration overkill, however, came when he was 10 when his uncle took him to FNB Stadium to watch the Soweto derby.
For the first time, he took a taxi by himself all the way from Ixopo to Johannesburg. Fortunately, on derby day his uncle got them seats that were fairly closer to the pitch.
The players looked so real, he says. It was a case of ‘seeing is believing’.
Now, the customary electric derby atmosphere at FNB was just enough to trigger the little boy’s longing to one day play the game for a living.
And so, the following year, after requesting a trial, he got an invite to train with Pirates. The SMS came in on a Thursday.
Luckily, mom – the school teacher – had no issues with him missing school on a Friday just to travel to Johannesburg. Uncle would then have to make a plan to get his nephew to Mayfair.
On the Saturday, he found himself in the midst of innumerable kids all eager to one day don skull and crossbones.
“They were the most kids I’ve ever seen in my life coming to a trial,” he recalls.
Even still, he made it right through to the final stage, albeit as a left back. “I made the final 22 and I took that back home with me,” the well-spoken soccer star recalls.
Only two boys were picked. Two years later, he would move to Johannesburg to school at Wendywood High School.
A trial with another of the Soweto giants would then follow. It was Amakhosi this time. If ever he thought he would build on the ‘last 22’ momentum from the Bucs trial, the little boy was so wrong. “We got there at 8am and only got to play at 3pm.”
It could have been a mere formality to give everyone a run in a hurried 6v6 game. And it would all amount to zilch.
Thereafter, young Nodada would not want to hear about trials. He was done with trials. But nothing could ever take away the inherent love for the game.
A stint with Sandton City would then follow, but that would be for a short time as he moved further away to King Edward VII School (KES) in Houghton. Training became a little bit far (a distance of 10km) while school was also demanding.
The multi-gifted Nodada would not be lost to sport, however. He took up triple jump. When it was not hop, step and jump, it was rugby.
But, as fate would have it, football came knocking again. This time it was his high school’s football coach who spotted him playing the game.
“I was over football. I thought I would become the next rugby player or the next triple jump champion.”
After all, KES had produced a man widely regarded as one of rugby’s greatest wingers – Brian Habana. There was hope after all, away from diski.
“The coach calls me on a Wednesday and says come train with the first team next week Monday. I get there and the coaching that’s happening is getting ready for a tournament.
“When the squad is announced, I’m in the squad. We went and played in the tournament. I was a substitute in the first game and then there was a game where the coach took the captain off and put me in,” he says.
Thabo Nodada was back in the fold. He was back where he belongs.
The passion was reawakened. A couple of weeks after that experience, he was back at it again – sending emails looking for an opportunity to train with a club.
Andreas Christodolou, then Mpumalanga Black Aces’ head of commercial and youth development, remembers that December 2011 email.
“There was a time he came to Black Aces, he came and proved himself,” Christodolou tells FARPost.
The two later reunited at Cape Town City when Aces was sold.
“He has been in my journey for the past 10 years, he’s the one that answered the email. He said come and trial. This is two months after my high school coach gave me a chance,” says the 25-year-old with gratitude.
The Aces trial had been different from the previous two he had attended. It made sense that he was here giving football another chance.
Judas Moseamadi’s first sight of Nodada was him playing as the traditional number nine in those trials. The two were vying for the same position.
Of course, Moseamadi had switched from goalkeeper to goal-poacher. But Nodada, he says, somewhat stood in the way of his progress. Nodada scored goals for fun, the man affectionately known as ‘Tzaneen Express’ recalls.
His wealth of talent often meant he could comfortably play anywhere on the pitch.
After all, his trial at Pirates saw him try out at left-back. And then later on, as he grew, he would play on the right wing.
“The first day I got there is the same day he got there. He was also playing as a striker. I event thought they were not going to choose me because Thabo was flying. He was scoring. I was lucky because they moved him from that striking role to play on the right wing. We even called him Bernard Parker,” the Maritzburg forward tells FARPost.
Parker at the time was turning out for FC Twentwe in the Nertherlands on the back of a successful stint with Thanda Royal Zulu.
Interestingly, Moseamadi believes had Nodada not been switched to play on the right wing, his chances of making it would have been slim.
And so, the journey truly began. After three seasons with the Aces Under 19 squad he was promoted to the reserve side for the inception of the Multichoice Diski Challenge in 2014.
The Aces reserve side would later play the Under 19 team and newly appointed coach Muhsin Etugral would watch the game.
The Turkish coach tells FARPost there was no way he would pay no attention to his talent.
“Thabo is a type of a player that has special gifts. It’s just natural with him. That’s what I saw,” he says from his Istanbul base.
“Firstly, his quick mind, he could assess the pattern (of play) earlier. He could easily break lines, and so later on we worked on his game education, he took it extremely well and the rest was just having game time and learning with the topics that he had.”
During his maiden season, he made 11 starts, won two man-of-the-match awards and scored two goals. He helped the club to an impressive fourth place finish.
And so, at the end of the season, he returned home, this time as a Pro. His joy would, however, be fleeting following an announcement the club had been sold to a Cape Town businessman, John Comitis.
“I receive my phone call that the new chairman would be in Johannesburg. I later met the chairman and he said ‘I wanna keep you, come to Cape Town’. I moved. It’s been one team my whole life,” he says.
He has enjoyed success with the Citizens, winning the 2016 Telkom Knockout and then the MTN8 in 2018 after missing it out in 2017.
On the individual front, he was crowned the club’s Player of the Year in 2018. There has been a myriad man-of-the-match displays.
In fact, Etugral tips his prodigy, who turns 26 in May, for tremendous success in the years ahead.
“For me, he still has a higher possibility and his level will go up with high demanding games in bigger clubs.”
A decade on from the time he sent that email to Aces, popular online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, has a bit about Ixopo, the charming town he hails from.
As one curiously scrolls down and searches under the tab Notable People is only one name.
Thabo Nodada is the one name in that section. You then wonder why it has never been retitled to take the singular form Notable Person.
Perhaps that will soon change when Nodada inspires another youngster just like Sizwe Makhanya motivated him.
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By Mthokozisi Dube