The unanswered phone call that landed Mpho Makola at Pirates


If Bobby Motaung had answered Mpho Makola’s calls on that morning in June 2012, ‘Bibo’ would have reunited with his boyhood club Kaizer Chiefs.

‘Bibo’ had his first taste of real competitive football at Amakhosi’s development side at the age of 13 alongside Itumeleng Khune and Touch Mabaso. Like any other boy who frequented Milo Park for the junior team’s training sessions for 4 years, he idolised the club’s talisman Jabu Pule. Pule, now Mahlangu, was the embodiment of all Makola wanted to be as a midfielder. More importantly, he yearned to one day pull on the coveted gold and black jersey.

But as fate would have it, Makola severed ties with the Soweto giants at 17 after a contractual stand-off. Nonetheless, a part of him still had a hankering to turn out for the Phefeni Glamour Boys.

For the next 6 years, life, or rather football, threw him from pillar to post. After his move away from Chiefs, Makola had stints with amateur sides Vaal Tech and Sheffield United. It was slapdash.

“The end of the Chiefs journey almost felt like the end for him, but I think we revived him at Sheffield United,” says his former coach Thabo Malebjoe.

Rightly so, Sheffield is where he played his best amateur football and he has a full medal cabinet to show for it. It is where his passion for the game was relit after the Chiefs anti-climax.

“At Sheffield, my teammates and the coaches kept telling me I had to push to play football professionally,” says Makola, who is revered for his tactical acumen, magnificent passes and knack for scoring free-kicks.

Luckily, one thing led to the other. Of course, things didn’t happen as quickly as he would have preferred. After shining at Sheffield, he landed in the hands of Harold ‘Jazzy Queen’ Legodi at the Africa Sport Youth Development Academy. Legodi, a Mamelodi Sundowns legend, is the conveyor belt that is credited for churning out great talents like Oupa Manyisa, Patrick Phungwayo, Ntsikelelo Nyauza, Lehlogonolo Masalesa, Menzi Masuku and Roger Majafa.

And then there was the Walter Sisulu Tournament in December 2007, which was the platform for his breakthrough to the PSL.

Going into that tournament, Bibo had no idea there’d be scouts. I mean, who expects the whole general manager of Free State Stars to be watching a sloppy football match ebhuqwini (on a dusty pitch) somewhere in Soweto?

“He was outstanding, I remember he scored 3 free-kicks Beckham style and I said we’re taking this boy immediately,” says Free State Stars Rantsi Mokoena, who had been invited by Tshepo Mabona, a former TV journalist with SABC.

Interestingly, it would be a few weeks before Makola knew there was firm interest in his services. The great Jazzy Queen would keep it a secret until January when the team resumed training.

“In January he gave me money and sent me to Bethlehem. Rantsi and Khotso Mokoena took me aside and said ‘you only have one day to convince the coach’. We have seen you play; he has never seen you play,” says Makola, who had previously failed to impress Kinnah Phiri at Ea Lla Koto.

Steve Komphela had just taken over as coach in 2008. A nervous Makola, aged 22 at the time, had just one chance to impress him. The challenge meant he’d come face to face with veteran left back Reuben Cloete as he dominantly operated on the right. But, inspired by the Beckham-style hattrick of free-kicks, Makola passed that test with flying colours in just one session.

“It took me one training session. I was up against Rueben Cloete playing on the right. The next day I was offered my first professional contract,” says Makola.

Komphela says young Makola reminded him of his great friend and former Bafana Bafana teammate John “Shoes” Moshoeu. There was no way he’d not give the youngster a chance.

“My best friend Shoes Moshoeu had the same qualities that Mpho had. He could use the ball, he was very intelligent. We never thought twice, we gave him the opportunity,” says Komphela.

Those that followed his career at Free State will know he played some of his best football at the club. He attributes that to Komphela, who he commends as a great mentor, and how well his welfare was taken care of.

“At Free State I played my best football, Steve Komphela got the best out of me. The management looked after me very well. They protected my talent. There were offers but they told me to take it easy and not be in a rush to move,” he says.

Mokoena also confesses he had a soft spot for his new protégé, helping him navigate the slippery waters of professional football.

“I loved the boy, he’s one former player of ours who I still have time for. He’d come to my house and eat. Sometimes he’d be playing with my son, who was very young at the time,” says Mokoena, who is clearly proud of Makola’s attainments.

After 4 years at Free State, Makola found himself at the crossroads. Not the kind of crossroads that leaves you with sleepless nights. The type that sometimes gets you smiling on your own.

Understandably, 2 of the country’s biggest clubs were after his signature. For a young man from Alex who’d been to several clubs trying to get a breakthrough to the PSL, this was massive.

Finally, his ingenuity was ushering him to the right places. The greater echelons of South African diski were beckoning. His boyhood club was keen on a reunion while their crosstown rivals Orlando Pirates were also in for his signature.

Legodi recalls a meeting with the Chiefs hierarchy to discuss a potential move. He, however, admits his desire was a move to Bucs courtesy of his relationship with Screamer Tshabalala. Tshabalala, ironically a founding member of Chiefs, held the technical director role at Pirates.

“We met with Bobby (Motaung),” Legodi confirms. “Tshepo Mabona wanted to take him to Chiefs. Bobby wanted him, but he took too long (to finalise the deal).”

And, at the end of the day, the determinant was one simple unanswered phone call.

“I grew up at Chiefs, a part of me wanted to go back to Chiefs. On the day I was supposed to meet Bobby he didn’t pick up the phone. When he tried calling me later, I was now at Mayfair (Orlando Pirates office) and I didn’t pick up the phone. It was a blessing in disguise that Bobby didn’t answer,” Makola recalls.

Indeed, Motaung seemingly ignoring his calls was like that bitter pill with blessed effects as he went on to have 7 beautiful years at Pirates.

“I don’t have any regrets at all. It’d have been something beautiful to return to Chiefs, but I guess it was God’s way. I had the best 7 seasons of my career at Pirates,” he adds.

Of course, his 7 years didn’t take off too well after injuries sidelined him early on after his move. Nonetheless, the man from ‘Gomora’ can never forget the first time he pulled on the Pirates jersey. Ironically, it was against his old club Chiefs in the Carling Black Label Cup, something he singles out as one of his special football memories.

Playing behind one of his childhood idols – Benni McCarthy – was the icing on the cake.
Another memory that lingers in his mind is that sublime 35-yard free-kick against Zambian side Zanaco in a 2013 Caf Champions League quarter-final at FNB Stadium.

He, however, admits his time at Bucs would have been more beautiful had he won all the cup finals they lost. He lost 8 cup finals – including the Caf Champions League and Caf Confederation Cup finals – and finished as PSL runner-up on two occasions, winning only one League trophy.

Forlornly, his amateur cabinet is better decorated than his professional one.

But the Cape Town City playmaker, who was capped 11 times for Bafana Bafana, is grateful for the incredible journey he has had in football.

After all, he could have been lost to football, but thanks to a jail visit orchestrated by his cop mom.

RELATED STORY: The jail visit that changed Mpho Makola’s life

By Mthokozisi Dube

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