In the bowels of a dusty Matatshe football ground, outside Thohoyandou, on a hot Christmas afternoon in 2008, Owen Da Dama unearthed a diamond in the rough.
The Volksrust-born, Mpumalanga coach abandoned the ultimate Christmas feast at his parents’ place in Makhuvha, some 4km from Matatshe, to go and watch that sloppy football match.
Of course, the lure was a mission to lookout for a sizzling hot striker who turned out for amateur side Dolphins FC. Dalton Mabilu, the owner of Dolphins, was so convinced his trusted goal poacher would easily catch the eye of a man whose illustrious playing career as a lethal striker took him as far as Germinal Beerschot in Belgium.
But, he was wide of the mark. Judiciously following the supposedly gifted forward, all Da Gama could see was this uncut diamond that marshalled the opposite team’s defence far better than a lot of topflight defenders he had seen.
“It was Christmas Day and I was in Venda at my parents’ place. Dalton invited me to come and watch his striker,” he says with so much eagerness in his voice.
Justifiably, he initially hesitated to accept the invite seeing it was Xmas – a time they traditionally spend together as a family. After a bit of convincing his folks, they reluctantly agreed.
“My family didn’t want me to go, they felt I could go on another day, but I insisted,” says Da Gama, who was barely a month into his Bloemfontein Celtic job at the time.
The game roared to life. 22 boys, who had no idea they were being watched by a man who was fast building a reputation as a top coach in the PSL, battled it out for village bragging rights.
One of those boys was Mulomowandau Eric Mathoho. Fatefully, the lanky defender, who had recently been switched from the traditional number 6 role to the heart of defence, was tasked with keeping an eye on the man Da Gama had come to scout.
“I had just moved Eric from anchor-man to central defence because I felt he had no pace,” says former Tshiombo XI Securitas coach, Abel Marubini, who started working with Mathoho when he was 16.
While the man nicknamed ‘Rubber Doll’ was stalking the striker’s movements, he could not help but notice a towering defender who took this seemingly unimportant game by the scruff of the neck.
The Highlands Park mentor has not forgotten the many interceptions the towering defender made on that unclouded afternoon. Almost 12 years on, he vividly remembers the stability he brought to Tshiombo’s backline.
“I was looking at the striker, but then this player caught my eye. He was winning every ball in the air, clearing every ball,” he explains.
Even Mabilu himself did not bother to follow up on what his guest thought about the striker after the game. His trusted forward had been reduced to a ‘village champion’ by his marker.
“Eric was on fire on the day, he definitely looked like a player destined for great things,” Mabilu acknowledges.
Overlooking the Dolphins striker, Da Gama, now the second longest serving PSL coach, approached Tshiombo’s management to enquire about the impressive teenage sensation.
To his surprise, it was a breeze. They were willing to let go of their most prized possession for free. The deal was as easy as ABC – they only wanted to be compensated some measly R48 they had used for his registration fees and photos. Da Gama gladly forked out R200 and the deal was done and dusted.
The 58-year-old, who is a descendent of the famous Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, had a clear plan for his new discovery. The path was certainly not going to be easy. But as someone who had unearthed talents like Surprise Moriri, Katlego Mashego, Stanley Kgatla and the late Oscar Ntwagae, he understood that diamonds don’t start out polished and shining.
“I had given Dalton some coaching manuals so I knew I could entrust him with this boy until June (2009) when I could bring him to Celtic,” he says.
He then left Mabilu some money for Mathoho to commute from his home village Tshiombo to Matatshe, about 20km, four times a week for training. It cost Da Gama R150 per week to ensure his new find attended training sessions for the next 5 months.
“It was a joy to work with Eric for those five months,” says Mabilu.
Come June 2009, a 19-year-old Mathoho, literally with no clothes to his name, was among several trialists at Phunya Sele Sele. Da Gama, however, never told Clinton Larsen, John Maduka or his boss Jimmy Augousti about this gemstone he had found in rural Limpopo.
“When we started the trials, I sat on one side, John Maduka and Clinton Larsen sat on different sides of the pitch,” explains Da Gama. The idea was so that each of them would have an independent assessment on the players that had come through for the week-long trials.
Augousti, the former Celtic owner, confesses it took him only two training sessions to be convinced they had struck gold. “He was good in the air, good at man-marking and playing the ball from the back. He would guard the goalpost behind him like a lion,” Augousti recalls.
By the end of the week, with a few clothes given to him by the players, the Bloem outfit signed him. Opinion on his defensive competences was undivided. The boy had left his prospective employers awe-struck and earned himself an R8,000 per month deal. Moreover, the man who had brought him was gratified.
“I didn’t want anyone to say I’ve brought this boy from Venda because I’m from there,” says Da Gama. But back home, Marubini, who quit football shortly after Mathoho’s move, could not believe it. It had never crossed his mind that any of his boys would make the grade at PSL level.
“I never believed any of these boys would make it beyond amateur football, so I always stressed they had to read their books and pursue academia,” he says with all honesty. Despite being impressed by his raw talent, Da Gama, who had a successful stint in Ireland in the late 80s, knew there was something missing.
Luckily, Derrick Coetzee, a man credited for conditioning the Springboks ahead of their 2007 Rugby World Cup triumph, had all the answers. Coetzee, who was head of the sports science department at the University of Free State, did a fitness test and determined that Celtic’s new boy needed core strength.
Now 62, Coetzee says for the next 6 months, it was bench press, row, shoulder press, bicep curl, tricep extension, squat, leg extension and leg curls. The utmost goal was to stabilise and balance Mathoho’s body.
“He demonstrated hunger. It had to come from the inside of him, he made sure he stepped over the line with everything we did. He would never do shortcuts,” he says.
His attitude was enough to convince this veteran fitness expert that he was destined for dizzy heights in the game. “That drive helped him. We already speculated he would escalate and be one of the top guys in the PSL,” adds Coetzee.
Besides the workouts at the UFS High-Performance Centre, the budding star would then join the rest of the team for afternoon training sessions. His moment of reckoning then came on the 3rd of February 2010 at Loftus Stadium in Pretoria. He had the unenviable task of shutting out the man who regularly formed the tip of Bafana Bafana’s spear in the build up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Katlego ‘Killer’ Mphela, who was playing his club football for Mamelodi Sundowns.
Gary Goldstone, the man who gave Mathoho his first pair of soccer boots, was out injured. And, the man to fill his big shoes was a rookie by the name Mathoho. “At first he refused, but I told him he would have to follow ‘Killer’ everywhere he went,” Da Gama says.
Come halftime, Mathoho was nowhere to be seen. Yes, he tried following Killer into the Downs dressing room. Talk of a man who follows instructions to the tee!
“We found him standing by Sundowns’ security. They wouldn’t let him pass. He wanted to go and be with ‘Killer’ in the dressing room,” Da Gama laughs as he relates that rib-tickling incident.
Nonetheless, the nervous teenager put up a five-star performance, earning himself his first man of the match award.
“Everyone stood and took notice of him after that game. But he only played about two games that season and the next season he just caught fire, he took the jersey and became a top player. A year later, he joined the biggest club in the country – Kaizer Chiefs,” Augousti adds.
Now esteemed for his no-nonsense defending and his tackles and ability to win aerial battles, he has gone on to make 259 topflight appearances, scoring 24 goals.
In 2014, he played every minute of Bafana Bafana’s remarkable AFCON qualifying campaign under Ephraim ‘Shakes’ Mashaba. Add to that, Mathoho has lifted 2 League titles, the Telkom Knockout and MTN8 cups.
Without a doubt, the 2015/16 season was his best season thus far. The 30-year-old, now comfortably on a six-figure salary, notched 7 goals and led all defenders with minute totals of 2430 (27 starts).
“I’m proud that, among other things, he built his parents a 12-roomed house in Tshiombo. He has done very well,” says a proud Da Gama.
Over a decade after that humble Christmas audition, Mathoho shines bright like a diamond pulled from dust: bright, clear and flawless.
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