The unlikely rise of Evidence Makgopa

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Evidence Makgopa is that rare rose that grew from a barren wasteland! The rare gem that sparkles in fields that are not even supposed to bear any diamonds.

Truth be told, if football was a game in which the law of averages applied, the boy would not have tasted topflight action.

If the law of averages did apply to the beautiful game, it would indeed be very unlikely that ‘Tower’ would be the man whose signature was sought by Orlando Pirates, a perennial titan in South African football.

In fact, the 21-year-old forward would never have gone to the Olympics, that pinnacle of sporting excellence, where he was a shining highlight of SA U23’s ill-fated campaign.

While the much vaunted golden generation of South African youngsters may ultimately have failed to sparkle, Makgopa was a beacon in a campaign that promised much but ultimately ‘ended in tears’.

He might have shone in Japan’s busy capital – Tokyo – but if the law of averages applied, if the mathematics of chance and fortune ruled over everything in life, he was not supposed to have even been there.

His story is just too unlikely, just too fantastic to be real. His tale just reads like a far-fetched rags to fortune tale ripped from the pages of a story written by an author that was too eager to sell hope.

This is, after all, a lad plucked from Ga-Mampa, a tiny, dusty village on the foot of Burgersfort in Limpopo. It is in Ga-Mampa where he grew up, the same place where he did not kick a football in serious anger until he was 13 years old.

The law of averages says they are not supposed to be made in villages on the outskirts of outskirts, where boys do not take football seriously until they reach their teens. They are certainly not supposed to be made in villages where the young play football in the dust shoeless without a defined position.

He might be a top gun now but back in those village days, some odd three years ago, he did not even know what position he was supposed to play on the football field.

“Just three years ago I was in my village playing tournaments, I didn’t think I would be where I am today. I used to play as a defender at amateur football because in the village there are no positions,” the young striker tells FARPost.

According to the striker’s dad, Chichila Makgopa, in the village, where talent and ability supersede well-thought out tactics, it was normal for young boys to step on the grubby fields and play without any positional restraint.

“The boy is like me, when I was growing up I used to play either at the back or as a striker,” Senior Makgopa tells FARPost in a separate interview. “I started noticing his talent when he was 14 in 2014, but it was not clear what position he could play. In the village, he would play defence and sometimes upfront.”

Of course, way before that Sammy Sekgobela, his uncle who was in charge of Sekgobela Santos, suspected football was his number one passion.

“When he was very young, he used to come and watch training. So, I had the feeling he would play football one day because he was always with us at training,” says Sammy Sekgobela, the man affectionately known as ‘Stampo’.

Even when his time to play with the big boys came, the youngster would often fill in at left-back. “He started as a defender, playing at left back and central defence for a little bit and still used to score,” adds Stampo.

One thing was for sure though, he treasured playing in big matches like your tournament finals in the village. He would always deliver, Stampo says.

Baroka FC chairman Khurishi Mphahlele’s first sighting of the 1.88m tall boy was during a festive season tournament back in Limpopo. The kind of stage he relished. He was now approaching his late teens not clear on his suitable position while his age mates like Goodman Mosele already had a dance in the PSL 14 months prior.

“We saw him at a festive season tournament in a ground called Ntwampe in Moroke Village in Limpopo. This was in December 2018 and he was playing as a defender when I first noticed him,” the Baroka supremo tells FARPost.

The man who oversaw that tournament that brought together 32 teams, Morgan Mamilla, then CEO of Baroka, says it took 45 minutes of football for him to realise that he was a talent that was destined for bigger things. He was, however, convinced that his considerable skills could be of better use further up the field.

“When I saw Evidence for only 45 minutes I knew we had found a gem. Luckily, he stays a kilometre from my house,” Mamilla tells FARPost.

With the festive spirit in the air, the two men, who were at the helm of Bakgaga, felt that in Makgopa, they had found the ideal Christmas gift for the coaches at the club.

That is why, out of all the 32 teams, they left an extra playing kit and eight soccer balls for his village side. It was their little way of saying ‘thank you’.

Despite his obvious talent, this was still a simple boy from a simple family from the village, and the last thing he wanted to do was to taint his pure heart by shoving too many rand in his pocket too soon.

“We didn’t want to push too much money to his pocket, a portion of the money would go to the parents. We don’t want them to get too much money and start doing funny things,” explains Mphahlele.

A move to Baroka’s development side would be a big step for a player that grew up playing football in dusty fields in the villages. The big boys from town had come calling and the teenager was clearly the hottest property in Ga-Mampa.

But that ideal life in the village, where passion and the love of the game drove boys to the dusty football pitches in the village, where they played with no defined position, would result in a lot of insecurities for the boy when he had to make the inevitable step-up. What really was his best position and more importantly, was he good enough?

“He didn’t think he was good enough. My place is a kilometre from his place so I went there the following morning after the tournament to wake him up,” Mamilla recalls.

His policeman dad, who was stationed in Lebowakgomo, had been sold. He was happy for the boy to move in with him in Lebowakgomo, which was also closer to Baroka’s base.

When he got his chance at the Ga-Mphahlele outfit, it did not take a long time for the long-legged boy from Ga-Mampa to catch the eye. Sure, even at that stage, he did not know where he truly belonged on the football field but the talent was evident.

“I went to watch the MDC team playing and straight away he stood out from everyone else,” ex-Baroka coach Dylan Kerr tells FARPost.

Again, he wasn’t playing at the tip of the spear of attack. He was a number 10 – gracefully sitting between the midfield and the offensive line.

“I told the chairman I needed to bring this kid in. We then played Hungry Lions [in the Nedbank Cup] and I played him at 10. At halftime it wasn’t working and I put him as a striker, I thought he would be more suited as a centre forward. The rest is history,” Kerr says. The wonderkid struck twice when moved to lead the line of attack.

While football fans that love the top flight are coming to grips with the youth international’s talent after a barnstorming debut season, for Kerr, he has what it takes to play at a higher level. The Maltese-born coach is convinced last season’s DStv young player of the season is a cyborg of sorts, an unusual player whose very body structure seems to have been borrowed from some of the game’s greats.

“When I first saw him, he reminded me of Patrick Vieira, he’s got the height and the long stride. The Yaya Toure type of player because of stature,” he adds.

Makgopa’s agent Paul Mitchell of Siyavuma Sports Group has also watched him evolve from that number 10 role to a forward who bagged seven goals in 28 League games last season. The same player who grabbed a brace in his maiden appearance for Bafana Bafana when they beat visiting Uganda 3-1 in an international friendly in June.

“He can finish, he’s very good in the air, and he’s got an unbelievable work rate. Lots to develop in his game still. He has raw ability, natural ability in abundance,” Mitchell tells FARPost.

At the Olympics, South Africans caught a glimpse of a player that might, when all is said and done, be a cure to Bafana’s perennial problems in front of goal.

“South Africans haven’t seen the best of this boy,” says Stampo. “He just got started, there’s a lot to come from him.”

The search for a world-beating striker has been long, but from the dust of Ga-Mampa may have come an unlikely saviour, the striker that never knew he was.

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By Mthokozisi Dube

MAIN PICTURE CREDIT: By Moloto Kgodisho