The quiet rise of fearless Mothobi Mvala

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The lure of going to watch four budding football talents at Harmony Sports Academy was just irresistible for Steve Haupt. After all, the academy had in its ranks the crème de la crème of the Free State province.

It didn’t even matter to Haupt that he was awaiting a hip operation. He just had to do it for the love of the game.

Maybe, just maybe, the Supreme Being just wanted him to see 18-year-old Mothobi Mvala. Arriving at the grounds in Bloemfontein, Haupt learnt that he had to walk to the furthest of four grounds to see the Harmony Academy gems. It was a stretch of about 600m to get to the last ground.

Coincidentally, Concordia High School from Theunissen, a small town located 95 kilometers northeast of Bloem, was playing against Dr Cingo Secondary School in the 2012 Kay Motsepe Cup.

In the heart of Concordia’s defence was a stalwart boy who wore his heart on his sleeve. There was no way you’d not notice him if you got the slightest glimpse of that game. He was in the thick of things. A vital cog in that Concordia team.

It’s quite interesting how the man upstairs works. At the time I was just about to go for my hip op, so I was battling with my hip,” Haupt tells FARPost.

“We had to walk quite a bit of a way to get to the fields and one of the outer fields there was a game going on and it looked like a school game.

“So, I sat down next to that field and I started watching the game. There was one kid who caught my eye.

“I thought this kid had great leadership qualities. I’d have never sat down if I didn’t have a broken hip, I’d have just walked past.”

The founder of Berea Albion Academy just couldn’t continue walking. He just had to feast on this amateur tie while gathering his strength to continue with the ‘journey’.

What was meant to be a brief breather kept him glued on the Concordia match for the next 20 minutes.

And, of the 22 players that slugged it out on that sunny afternoon, one of them stood out. He commanded the defence like an orchestra conductor stressing the musical pulse so that all the performers can follow the same metrical rhythm.

After just a third of an hour, he proceeded to see his four Harmony targets – Makeyi Mata, Themba Dladla, Manjoe Bojosi and Makita Tsoale.

But at the back of his mind, the resolute teenager he had just seen just had to be a part of the group he would take to the Magalies Mountains, where Berea Albion Academy is based, for trials the following week. “I told this youngster to join us,” Haupt says.

Even his teacher, Motlamedi Albert Monnapula, recalls that day and insists the commanding performance was an everyday thing for the boy. He had been working with the teenager for five years at that point.

From age 13, he says, the youngster easily slotted into any age group team in the school and played with unchanged tenacity as he grew into a leader.

“Mothobi was so disciplined. If I was late for training, he would actually get everyone started with training. He ended up becoming my captain. If a player didn’t train, he would insist that they don’t play,” Monnapula tells FARPost.

He describes the boy as a stickler for discipline and hard work.

“He was such a hard tackler from a young age. We used to call him 50/50 because he wasn’t afraid to go 50/50 with older boys.

“When he was 15 he was going into challenges with 19-year-olds,” Monnapula adds. It’s an element of his game that has not left him. The steely-nerved central midfielder is not a player that would shy from the tackle.

Pitso Mokoena, renowned for producing talents like the SuperSport United duo of Teboho Mokoena and Sipho Mbule at Harmony Academy boys, says it was known all over the Free State that there was a boy who marshalled the Concordia defence with the aplomb of an old hand.

The chemistry between Teacher Monnapula and his tough-as-nails skipper was also common knowledge across the province. “You could tell his teacher had so much trust in him,” Mokoena notes.

But, he understands why as he acknowledges the boy was good.

“There was no [age group] team at school without Mothobi. He actually played with bigger boys.

“They didn’t have too much quality at Concordia, but they would qualify for tournaments because Mothobi would fight hard.

“He was a centre-back, but when they were struggling to score he would go forward and score. He would then return to the back to defend their lead,” Mokoena tells FARPost.

Pule Mmodi, who was a year older than Mvala, says he easily fit into the team despite his age.

“We could tell he was a hard worker and he became our captain even though he was younger than us. There were days where he needed to push upfront just to go and get us a goal. That is how influential he was for us,” Mmodi, who’s now at Golden Arrows, tells FARPost.

It all made sense when Haupt approached Monnapula to make him aware that he would be taking his boy. The move meant the steely-eyed teenager would have to leave familiar ground in the Free State to go to Gauteng.

His mother had no qualms at all. She had heard of how good he was with this football thing and just wanted the best out of it. “My mother was very supportive,” Mvala tells FARPost.

Interestingly, Haupt reveals that of the boys he took from the Free State that particular day, Mvala is the only one who has made it to the PSL.

Of course, it has taken a lot of work to get him to grow in the game. “He was completely raw, never even knew what a bib was or what a cone was. He had never been exposed to any of that sort of equipment. He was so raw but he had a great attitude,” Haupt recalls.

He worked the hardest. Ran the hardest and was fearless in the air. “I can’t tell you how many times I had to get his head stitched. The guy was just a great competitor,” adds the man who discovered Mvala.

The hardcore box-to-box midfielder, nicknamed ‘Pogba’ after the Manchester United ace, has become a prime example at the academy of how far an unbridled hunger will take one in football.

“When he came here he couldn’t even kick the ball with his left foot, he’s the type of guy who would go and kick 1000 balls with his left foot to make sure that he improves,” Haupt adds.  

After just a year at the academy, he promoted him to the Highlands Park ABC team. “I went [to Highlands Park] after Steve bought shares and became the coach,” recalls Mvala.

Haupt remembers how his prodigy saw red in his first game at Highlands Park in the ABC Motsepe League. “In 2014, the club won promotion and he played for me in the ABC and in his first game he got sent off. I used to like him as a centre-back.”

Haupt says the youngster was too aggressive at the back, and they thought they would use his energy in the middle of the park. Of course, time and again, they would play him at the back when there was a crisis.

Nonetheless, he has flourished in the middle of the park, catching the eye of former Mamelodi Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane four years ago. The soft-spoken midfield grafter was part of the Lions of the North team that won promotion to the PSL in 2016 before being relegated after a season, but later returned to the topflight.

“He opted to stay with the club despite interest from other teams when we were relegated. He insisted he wanted to help the club bounce back to the PSL,” Tapuwa Kapini tells FARPost.

In 2018, they won promotion back to the PSL and he was named player of the season after a stellar term. He also won the Golden Boot gong after scoring eight goals. The following season, the gritty midfielder, who was part of the 2016 SA Olympics team, was awarded the Chairman’s Award.

“Four years ago, Pitso [Mosimane] told me he had ‘never seen a kid learn so quickly’,” Haupt reveals. Perhaps that is the reason Mosimane recruited him to Sundowns before the coach’s move to Egypt giants Al Ahly in October 2020.

With each passing game, the hardworking Bafana Bafana midfielder continues to represent the people of Masilo in Theunissen with such pride. “There aren’t too many footballers that come from my part of town so I am proud to represent the people of Masilo,” the 27-year-old says.

He admits that no one would have ever looked at him if it wasn’t for that broken hip that forced Haupt to sit down and watch that game.

Without a doubt, his story presents a picture that the “right happenings” are dependent on divine orchestration.

RELATED STORY: Why Mothobi Mvala is every coach’s dream

By Mthokozisi Dube