When Mpho Makola was 17, his mother did something almost unthinkable, but overly effective.
As a teenager, exploring all things permissible and forbidden, the man popularly known as ‘Bibo’ was fast losing his moral compass.
Straight after school, he’d throw his bag on the bed and join the kind of crew any mother would take exception to. They would sit by a popular corner in Alexandra, a township located near the upper-class suburb Sandton, and smoke all manner of smokable things.
“I was in the habit of chilling with the wrong crew and my aunt called my mother and told her all about it. I’d also started smoking dagga,” Makola recalls.
Surprisingly though, his footballing future looked brighter than ever after a stint with the Kaizer Chiefs development side.
Bibo cut his football teeth at Vaal Killers, which played in the Chappies Little League, from as early as 6.
But it was that stint with Amakhosi’s juniors that set him on the pedestal. Of course, it started off in unspectacular fashion. The tiny lil’ boy from ‘Gomora’ was initially turned away because there were too many players in the Chiefs junior side.
But Lebogang Charles Ndebele, who was the Under 17 coach, had to beg the Under 15 coaches to give this 13-year-old a chance. “They had turned him away and I felt for the poor boy. I really felt bad,” Ndebele says emphatically.
For Ndebele, affectionately known as Chief in football circles, the biggest thing this scrawny looking teenager had done was saving up money just to attend the unplanned trial in Milo Park. Admittedly, he says anyone could have been forgiven for easily writing off the young, lean Makola.
“He was only allowed to train with the team because he had come, and we couldn’t let him leave without playing. I remember we played Rondo (a type of game similar to keep away that’s used as a training drill in football) and I saw his good touches and a football brain. I decided I’d help the boy,” adds Ndebele.
Exactly a fortnight later, Ndebele invited Makola to his Under 17 side for a friendly match because some players were away preparing for exams.
“The boy was buzzing in that friendly match. He was untouchable and everyone loved him. That’s how Mpho was signed at Chiefs,” reveals Ndebele.
But 4 years down the line, his journey with the Phefeni Glamour Boys ended abruptly. That cut short his hopes of one day pulling on the coveted black and gold shirt. This was after he refused to sign a professional contract, which would have, however, seen him continue in the junior set up.
“I knew that contract would bind me, and I’d be stuck in the development team, I wanted to play senior team football,” Makola says.
And so, he joined Alex amateur side Sheffield United ekasi almost ready to throw away his budding career.
But that move came with all sorts of negative influence that was fast driving him off the rails.
If his mother was any other ordinary mom, he admits it could have gotten worse. But his no-nonsense mom, Joyce Makola, who raised him single-handedly, is a cop stationed at the Bramley Police Station.
After hearing of his shenanigans in Alex, where he was staying with his aunt, she invited him over for a lil’ pep talk. But it was not the usual, plain verbal pep talk, it was accompanied by a traumatising tour of a police holding cell in Bramley. The sight of confined and caged young men, some that looked as young as him, was enough to knock some sense into his head.
“He was hanging around with the wrong company in Alex, so I decided to take him to a holding cell to show him what awaited him if he chose the wrong path. I showed him how people lived in the holding cells and what they ate,” she says.
Predictably, Makola admits that was his turning point. It was an unpleasant experience that gave him the necessary wake up call. He would rather learn from his cop mom than learn the harder way behind cells.
“It made a significant impact on me because I thought my mom worked hard to be where she was and to see her being so emotional, down and being so concerned about me was touching,” he says, adding that his mom started off as a hairdresser.
Interestingly or rather wretchedly, he reveals that some of the crew he chilled with by that infamous corner are either dead or in prison. Dominantly, the dead and incarcerated ones were involved in botched car hijackings, a misdemeanour he could have easily been roped into had he continued with them. And then you have those who are doomed, begging for a few Rands each time they see their star footballer friend.
“Football took me away from that kind of company,” he confesses.
His Sheffield coach Thabo Malebjoe vividly remembers the kind of impact the jail visit had on his prodigy. For Malebjoe as well, there was extra motivation to help his young turk stay out of trouble. Makola’s plainspoken mom had threatened to arrest him. Yes, she would also throw his coach into the cells if he misled her son.
“At one point his mom didn’t want him to stay in Alex. She thought he was coming there just to be mischievous. She even threatened to arrest me with Bibo. But the jail cell visit really changed him,” Malebjoe says. He adds that after the Bramley police visit, he saw a determined and resolute Bibo.
His mother proudly remembers how after that jail visit, he’d bring half of his man-of-the-match earnings. “I started to understand he had potential because often he’d be man-of-the-match and he’d get money for it. If it was R1000, he’d give me R500,” Mama Joyce says, adding she was never interested in football.
By his own admission, some of his best amateur football was played at Sheffield. And his ingenuity in the middle of the park did not go unnoticed with a few trial invitations at Ajax Cape Town, Santos and later Mamelodi Sundowns.
“At Ajax, I scored in a friendly game and they wanted to sign me, but Chiefs demanded compensation for me. Ajax refused to pay, and I went back home and told myself I’d not go back to Chiefs,” Makola says.
Malebjoe recalls the unsuccessful Sundowns trial, organised by Brian Baloyi who also hails from Alex, for 2 reasons. They had a breakdown driving back from Chloorkop and the 19-year-old boy got him all emotional and teary as he expressed appreciation for all his help.
“He said to me ‘Coach Thibos, you’ve helped so many young boys ekasi but I doubt you’ve done more for anyone than me. A lot of these boys have forgotten you, but I can assure you – I’ll never forget you.’ I couldn’t say a word after that, I had to hide my tears,” Malebjoe says admiringly.
True to his word, Makola has never forgotten him. In fact, his former coach says there’s been a reversal of roles lately – the Cape Town City midfielder is now playing mentor to the man who was instrumental in his development.
His last port of call before his PSL breakthrough was Harold ‘Jazzy Queen’ Legodi’s Africa Sport Youth Development Academy in 2006. At the time, the academy was also home to the likes of Patrick Phungwayo, Lehlogonolo Masalesa and Oupa Manyisa.
Growing frustrated as his teammates were securing moves to PSL sides, Makola discloses how he almost called it quits.
“I was on the verge of giving up, my mom was suggesting that I go back to school. But I looked at my medal cabinet. I was an amateur player, but I kept collecting medals everywhere I played,” he says, adding that he had already applied for a place at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT).
Luckily, he hung on a little and put up a five-star performance in the Walter Sisulu tournament in December 2007. “I didn’t know there were scouts from Free State Stars, and I scored 3 free-kicks in one game. Jazzy didn’t tell me I’d secured a trial at Free State Stars until January,” he says.
There was beginning to be a ray of light. The future was looking brighter by the day, all thanks to that one jail visit.