The unforgettable sacrifice that paved way for Nyiko Mobbie

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Like many other boys who witnessed Bafana Bafana’s breath-taking performances that led to the historic ‘96 Afcon triumph, Ratshibvumo Mulovhedzi had a dream!

He expected his striking talent to place him at the heart of some of South Africa’s hallowed football arenas in front of multitudes of the game’s enthusiasts. But with each passing year, that dream felt like a far-fetched fantasy.

For fleeting moments, he was as good as convinced that ‘maybe topflight stars are not supposed to be made in villages on the outskirts of outskirts’.

So, seeing that no scout would come to Limpopo and run the rule over his decent football talent, Mulovhedzi packed his bags and joined the Great Trek to Cape Town. There he would try his luck.

“I played football and I know how it feels to play and there’s no-one who comes to scout you. Scouts go to places where there are five star hotels and beaches,” Mulovhedzi, who’s now a football agent, tells FARPost.

But before hitting the road, he called Colin Gie, the man who was instrumental in taking the late Anele Ngcongca to Arsenal for trials in 2005.

The football enthusiast in him had stumbled upon Gie’s contact while perusing a local newspaper. And so, after getting in contact with Gie, it was time to travel to the Mother City.

Of course, he had previously had a spell albeit as a fringe player for Black Leopards, but he thought a move out of Limpopo was what the doctor ordered.

Unfortunately, his career had to be cut short in 2008 by a knee injury after brief stints with FC Fortune and Vasco Da Gama.

As he turned his hand to being an agent, one thing was certain to him – a lot of talent in his province was going unnoticed. There were no scouts coming through to the northernmost province of South Africa named after the Limpopo River.

“I realised that football people – coaches from all over and scouts for junior national teams don’t come to rural areas. They only go to Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg,” Mulovhedzi adds.

And so, one day in 2014, he decided to sacrifice some of his money to facilitate the scouting for talent in the Makhado, Thohoyandou and Shikundu areas. The plan was to invite one of the PSL teams to come and have a look at the promising boys he would have picked over month-long trials.

“I had R6 000 and I said to Themba [Sithole], let me put players together from Limpopo. I scouted and picked what I thought were promising players so that the job would be easy for Themba,” the man affectionately known as ‘Ratshi’ says.

That hard-earned R6k had to be wired to Sithole, a Free State Stars technical team member. The money would cover Sithole’s travel costs, accommodation and food. It would seem that was the only way Mulovhedzi could get a scout to come and have a look at the gems the province known for its bushveld and wildlife reserves had.

Sithole, who spent 33 years at Stars including his time as a player, remembers that particular expedition with such vividness. How would he forget after the gems he unearthed on the day?

“We had trials at Makwarela, an open field close to the shopping mall in Thohoyandou,” the 57-year-old coach tells FARPost.

Combing through the rough diamonds in front of his vigilant eye, he spotted a small bodied, frail teenager with scrawny, unusually thin legs. The boy was endowed with pace, a decent pass and cross, as well as some sense of positional awareness.

He would hold the ball, pass inside, run on the line and when they lost it, he swiftly tracked back. That is what Themba Sithole was looking for.

“The boy was tall and thin. Like really thin. I said I like this boy and someone was asking me where I was taking such a thin boy. I saw something in this boy for the future,” Sithole says.

The teenager was Nyiko Mobbie, aged 19 at the time. Armed with just a desire to break forth in the beautiful game. That was his story at that point.

Sithole didn’t have to be told the kind of background the boy came from. It was apparent that he was not from a well up family. Understandably so, he was left under the care of his paternal grandmother after the passing of his mother while his dad worked in Johannesburg. The youngster didn’t have it all together.

“You know the ones that come from well up families. Boys from well up families get food at home, they are privileged. You could see with Nyiko that at home it was a struggle,” adds Sithole, who hung up his boots in 2002.

Poverty was written all over his face. Nonetheless, he was the type of budding footballer he wanted to take back to Bethlehem. At least 15 players were selected during those trials.

Later that day, Sithole learnt that there were Castle League playoffs in Giyani. That is where he also found the duo of Justice Chabalala and Sello Japhta.

Having identified a combined 30 players, Ea Lla Koto then sent a bus that would ferry them to Bethlehem for further assessment.

Until then, Mobbie had played his football for amateur side FC Basel. His agriculture teacher at Shikundu Secondary School, Joe Makhado, had actually taken him to FC Basel after watching him boss the midfield in a schools derby.

“I first noticed his talent in a school game and I took him to FC Basel where I was a co-founder. At the time he was playing central midfield – both defensive and attacking,” Makhado tells FARPost.

If Mobbie had his way, he would never have switched from the engine room to fullback. But as fate would have it, a situation demanded that uncomfortable switch.

“We were playing an important game and some of our players were writing Matric. The person who often played right back was not available on the day. We looked around and thought Nyiko could play there. He was so unhappy when we told him, but he eventually played and did well. Since that day, he has never looked back,” Makhado says.

And so, when it was time to showcase their talents to Sithole, his FC Basel coaches thought he stood a chance trying out as a right-back.

“We thought central midfield was congested so we told him to play right back and he played just five minutes and did exactly what a right back needed to do,” adds Makhado.

Sithole, however, emphasises that the boy needed some stamina, energy and fitness. While his friend Chabalala, pictured below, was ripe for senior team action at Stars in just under 18 months, it would take Mobbie a good two years because of his physical profile.

Makhado recalls how several times the boy would call him insisting he wanted to come back home because he was made to run while others were playing football.

“I had to encourage him because I figured out it wouldn’t be easy for him to see Justice Chabalala recommended to the senior team when they came together,” says Sithole.

In one of the sessions, Sithole recalls how they got a scare when he collapsed supposedly “because of his adaptation”.

“We had to call an ambulance. It was quite scary because we were pushing these guys.”

After toiling and fighting the edge to quit, he finally got promoted to the senior team in March 2016.

“I spent a month in the Free State just to make sure all the boys that were scouted were comfortable. Even today, I didn’t get anything [from Mobbie’s move]. When it was time for me to make money, he went to Mike Makaab,” says an agitated Mulovhedzi, who was at one point Mobbie’s agent.

The 27-year-old’s first taste of success was winning the Nedbank Cup with Stars in 2018 before joining Sundowns the following year. Earlier this year, he was part of the Bafana Bafana team that won the Cosafa Men’s Cup.

The Bafana fullback, who recently featured at leftback in the 2022 World Cup qualifiers against Zimbabwe and Ghana, is now in his third loan at Sekhukhune after spells at Stellenbosch FC and Chippa United.

Sithole, who has since reunited with him at Sekhukhune, is convinced he will thrive wherever he is planted.

For Mulovhedzi, the defender is sheer testimony that sometimes when you sacrifice something of value to you, you’re not really losing it. You’re just passing it on to someone else!

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Mthokozisi Dube