With his native Mozambique a former Portuguese colony, only gaining independence in 1975, two years after his birth [on 16 August 1973], the pristine destination for any top football talent was the southern European country bordering Spain on the Iberian Peninsula – the southwest corner of Europe.
Obviously, Portugal was seen as some sort of gateway to the super La Liga!
“He was a genius, it was such a joy to coach him from a young age. If there were videos of his games as a youngster, he would have easily gone to Europe early in his career,” Usaras Momed, the man who unearthed Tico-Tico, tells FARPost from his Maputo base.
During a lengthy WhatsApp call interview, Tico keeps mentioning Momed with such fondness. It feels like not talking to Momed would render his beautiful story incomplete. But there is one slight problem!
Momed only speaks Portuguese, just like many Mozambicans who have lived all their lives in the south-eastern African country bordered by the Indian Ocean to the east.
Portuguese happens to be the only official language in Mozambique and Tico, who is currently a business developer for a construction company in his hometown, reveals it is spoken mostly as a second language by about half the population.
Common native languages include Makhuwa, Sena and Swahili. And then you have a few like Tico, who speak Tsonga in the southern part of the country.
Nonetheless, we make use of Google translate. Type in the question in English, translate to Portuguese, copy and paste.
Weird as it sounds, it worked perfectly to a point Tico commended us for the ‘perfect’ Portuguese when he saw the chat thread.
Anyway, Momed stresses how much of a massive talent the youngster he met at 11 when he joined Desportivo de Maputo. There was hope that he would make it as far as Spain, perhaps via Mozambique’s former colonial master Portugal.
But just when he broke into the first team of Desportivo de Maputo, he overly exerted himself at training. And, one day while fighting for an aerial ball, he landed awkwardly and hurt his right knee.
However, such injuries were quite common as he grew up in Malhangalene, a township on the outskirts of the capital Maputo.
Nothing to fuss about at all. It would heal on its own after a few days, he thought. Life continued, the world’s most beautiful game was played, and records were set. The injured knee was somewhat out of mind.
His initial stint at Desportivo between 1992 and 1994 yielded an impressive 35 goals off 63 appearances. For a chap who started playing first team football at 19, the stats were monumental.
As expected, he was off to Portugal where he spent six frustrating months just training at Sporting Lisbon under the watchful eye of Carlos Queiroz, who later enjoyed two spells as Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistant at English club Manchester United.
Tico-Tico, a nickname derived from the rufous-collared sparrow commonly found in his native country, moved to Sporting Lisbon outside the international transfer window so he could only train before completing his transfer from his childhood club Desportivo.
Desperate for his services, the Mozambican side ended up recalling him. “I returned home, and we won the League championship and a cup in 1995,” Tico tells FARPost.
His ingenuity, once again, did not go unnoticed as another Portuguese outfit, Estrela da Amadora, came knocking for his striking services. That is where his conundrum started. The knee issue he had carried since the age of 18 was picked up.
“Until that point, we didn’t think it was something serious,” he reveals. Yet it complicated a potential move and meant he had to go back home again.
Naturally, despair would creep in and his dream of playing overseas shattered.
“Only when I went to Portugal is when they needed to do medicals, they discovered it,” he says. When it was time for the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations [Afcon], he was more conscious of the injury, but it would not stop him from playing.
“We decided that I would travel with the national team and then we would look at the knee after the tournament.
“I scored my country’s first goal at the Afcon [16 January 1996]. It was a solo goal in a game against Tunisia. It was a Ronaldo-kind of goal,” says Tico with pride.
Days after the tournament, Jomo Cosmos supremo Jomo Sono contacted Desportivo. He admits, however, that before that phone call, Mzansi was never in the picture.
“Our only interest was going to play in Portugal. Remember, for a long time South Africa had been banned from international football. So, when the contact was made, I was sceptical about the whole thing.”
But what enticed the then 23-year-old was the fact that the ‘Black Prince of South African Football’ was aware of the knee issue, yet he was still keen on signing him.
“When I eventually came to South Africa, it turned out it wasn’t as bad. I didn’t even need surgery for the knee,” recalls the man who joined Jomo Cosmos in the months leading to the start of the modern PSL era.
He is quick to admit that settling in at Ezenkosi was a bit of a mammoth task. The limited game time in the early stages of his time in South Africa frustrated him.
“I was adjusting to the new surroundings. I wasn’t used to sitting on the bench,” he says.
The fleet-footed ex-forward reveals that he came close to quitting and returning home after the first couple of months, but his late sister insisted that he stick it out.
His decision to grin and bear it all started paying off in the second half of his maiden season in the PSL. With his bag of tricks, those marque flicks, body swerves and stunning goals, he struck double figures in the first PSL season.
He did it again in his second season, before taking it a notch higher in his third term when he hit the net 21 times. That fairy-tale run was followed by a six-month stint at Chinese side Guangdong Hongyuan in 1999.
He then had another brief spell with Ezenkosi before leaving again for Tampa Bay Mutiny in the USA where he spent another six months, returning for his third spell with Cosmos at the turn of the millennium.
The Machiavellian goal poacher continued with his remarkable scoring form, notching double figures for the fourth consecutive complete season that he had spent in the PSL in 2000/01.
Interestingly, his most memorable moment in that blue and red Cosmos shirt came off an explosive cup final riddled with a bit of controversy.
Many will remember how in the inaugural Coca Cola Cup [now Telkom Knockout Cup] in 2001, Kaizer Chiefs humiliated Ezenkosi with a 5-0 drubbing.
But Sono’s men didn’t have to wait too long to get one over the Soweto giants. Tico was the main architect of that revenge albeit under contentious circumstances.
When the two teams came to blows in the Coke Cup final at FNB Stadium on 30 November 2002, the match had to be stopped for close to half an hour four minutes before full time after referee Daniel Bennett refused to award Chiefs a penalty.
Jabu Pule [now Mahlangu] had been bundled over inside the box. Outraged by Bennett’s decision, even made worse by the fact that the Amakhosi faithful were sure that Tico’s first half strike should have been chalked off for offside, spectators threw missiles onto the pitch.
“For us, it was a big result because we had lost 5-0 the previous year. It showed we were growing as a team,” says the man who also captained Ezenkosi to the SAA Supa8 Cup the following year.
He then left for SuperSport United in 2004 where he again struck double figures in his first season [2004/05], scoring 14.
“I was a bit reluctant to join SuperSport because I was 31, but Pitso [Mosimane] convinced me he wanted to build a formidable team and felt I could play a part,” explains Tico.
His former SuperSport teammate Ricardo Katza only has hilarious recollections of the man who captained ‘The Mambas’ at three Afcon editions.
“In his first week training with us, people weren’t passing him the ball until Pitso stopped training.
“He shouted, ‘do you guys know who this man is? Go to the PSL and find his statistics. He’ll score goals for us’. It was so funny,” Katza tells FARPost.
Mozambique’s most capped player (94 appearances) and record goal scorer (30 goals) battled with the knee injury as he concluded his stay at the Tshwane side, eventually leaving them for Orlando Pirates in January 2007. He only scored four goals in 18 starts for Bucs.
Aged 35, he packed his bags and relocated to Pietermaritzburg to turn out for Maritzburg United. Again, the same injury didn’t help his cause.
His last dance in the PSL was a cameo role at Cosmos in 2009/10, starting just two games and hanging up his boots at the end of that campaign.
Nonetheless, a glittering legacy had been left behind.
The man revered for being the highest scoring foreign national in the PSL era with 106 goals in 276 starts was able to reach double figures on the scoring charts in seven of the first eight full seasons that he spent playing domestic football.
“Everything good that happened in my career was at Cosmos. I was well taken care of at Cosmos and the environment was nice. I was dealing with someone [Jomo Sono] who was like family to me. It just felt like home,” says Tico, who reveals he and Sono often conversed in Tsonga.
Now back in his hometown, Tico is not totally lost to football. With his Tico Foot Academy, he hopes to unearth talents that will make waves overseas when Covid-19 finally allows the maximum return of football.
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By Mthokozisi Dube