Age really is just a number! No wonder people who defy the odds in whatever trade don’t let their age define who they are and what they are capable of.
Just ask Tumelo Mogale – the first and only player to make their PSL debut on the ‘wrong side’ of 30.
His story just about reads like that of Mozart, a celestial genius who struggled like a mere mortal during his teens and early 20s. Though already a prolific composer, he had to work as an organist and concertmaster in his native Salzburg to make ends meet.
Of course, Mozart’s issue was being underpaid, unfulfilled and hemmed in by his frustratingly average gigs. For Mogale, who displayed prodigious ability from a young age – mysterious illnesses, a wrongful imprisonment and untimely injuries – were the obstacles. He spent years toiling in amateur football despite his unrivalled talent.
You’re never too old
Nonetheless, he made history when he finally played for Baroka FC in 2016 at the ripe age of 32. Who would argue that the man is one of the best passers of the ball? Why would those that know him pretty well christen him ‘Factory of Passes’? Those that watched him will attest that Mogale sprayed passes like confetti at a wedding with incomparable mastery, you’d think he invented passing.
“Passing can’t be taught, it’s just something I was born with,” says Mogale. Even if it were taught, Mogale never got a chance to play development football. The only taste of junior football he got was at Jomo Cosmos albeit for less than 1 year.
But it all started at Tlholohelo Primary School, in Moletsane, Soweto. Young Mogale fancied man-marking problematic strikers in the heart of defence until a teacher noticed his passing was second to none.
“I used to play centre back at primary school and then a teacher moved me to central midfield because he thought I was a good passer of the ball,” he says.
Quality mentoring will enhance one’s chances for success
Interestingly, football talent ran in his dad’s family though none of them played at the highest level. Seeing this, Mogale’s yearning from a tender age was to play in the topflight.
But as football would have it, there were multiple limitations that kept his talent in obscurity. And then when he was 25, he started playing for Soweto’s amateur side Black Poison.
“We never used to train, we’d meet at the weekend and just play football,” says Mogale, a man they jokingly refer to as ‘lifetime captain’ of amateur side Black Poison.
Although he knew he had what it took to play at the highest level, it was clear that with that kind of approach to the game, nothing would come out of his dream.
And as philosophers say, “You’ll never reach your peak until you surround yourself with the right people” all that started changing when Rulani Mokwena took over as coach of Black Poison in 2010.
“Rulani came to coach Black Poison a month after I started playing for the club. I got there at the end of 2009 in December and he came in January of the following year,” he remembers.
“When Rulani came, he insisted that players needed to train. My game improved immensely.”
Never prejudge the worth of someone by their outward appearance alone
While the arrival of Mokwena was a step-up for him, the Mamelodi Sundowns assistant coach wasn’t instantly rapt by his demeanour. Understandably so. He looked all dangly, lifeless and lackadaisical. You’d easily mistake him for an unindustrious, inattentive and unambitious amateur footballer.
In essence, he was seemingly the antithesis of the player Mokwena wanted to build his team around. “I thought to myself, ‘I can’t coach this one. He’ll not fit into my team’,” confesses Mokwena.
Fast-forward a few weeks down the line, ‘Maleven’, as he is affectionately known in Soweto’s football circles, was an all-important player in that team. He was the captain of the Black Poison ship.
“He became an incredible player and captain. He became one of the most important players for one of the most supported amateur clubs in Soweto,” adds the former Orlando Pirates coach.
Life has no guarantees
Just when things were seemingly shaping up in 2011, with interest from clubs in the NFD and PSL trickling in, Mokwena got a phone call that threw cold water on the work he was doing. On the other end of the phone was a sobbing woman. It was the mother of his most trusted lieutenant – Maleven. Accused of a car hijacking, he was facing the darkest hour of his life when it looked like things were all coming together.
“The day he got arrested we were scheduled to have a training session and Maleven never missed a training session. His mom called me before the session to tell me he had just been taken to jail. She told me the whole story,” Mokwena says.
The cry of his mother was heart-breaking, he says. “I felt the pain when I heard from the mother who was in tears telling me the story. She believed he was innocent because she had spent the entire day with him at home. Having known Maleven for 10 years, I now understand why she’s been his number 1 supporter. He is a consistent character,” Mokwena says.
Maleven’s mother, Refilwe Mogale, singles out that phase as the most difficult of her life.
“I hate that day; it was the worst day of my life. When I thought it was going to end soon, it took another 3 months to get him released from jail,” she says, echoing her son’s words who adds that it was not easy to come back and continue playing football.
Barely a year after his release from prison, Maleven caught the eye of Roses United, who were in the NFD at the time. Mokwena is still startled at how he picked up the pieces to continue with life.
“I never saw a difference, I expected to see someone with rebellion, anger and bitterness. But he never changed, I think he took it on his chin and continued to play football, I was very surprised that he didn’t quit football,” Mokwena recollects.
After a season with Roses United, who were relegated, he went back to Black Poison.
Obstacles do not block the path, they’re the path
Without a doubt, where others see impenetrable barriers, Maleven sees challenges to embrace and obstacles to overcome.
His confidence, according to Mokwena, in the face of hardship was seemingly driven by the ability to let go of the negativity that would have easily held so many otherwise sensible people back.
In no time, there was interest from Bloemfontein Celtic and Free State Stars. Unfortunately, he could not travel to Bloem because of a problematic clot on his neck.
“It didn’t make sense, I then had other injuries that I didn’t understand and rejections by coaches,” Mogale explains.
His tried and true philosophy is that one must always give their best and maintain a positive attitude lest someone important is watching them. It paid off when Baroka bosses watched the Maimane Alfred Phiri Games in 2016.
“I personally watched him play at the Maimane Phiri Games and we were quite impressed. Seeing him realise his dream was equally fulfilling for us. It’s the reason we’re in football. We’re in football to change the lives of young boys from the township who would ordinarily not get such opportunities,” says Baroka chairman, Khurishi Mphahlele.
Let go of other people’s opinions
Mogale, also known as King Jivey to his legion of fans, believes that no matter what other people think of you at any moment, one thing is certain—you’re never as good or bad as they say you are.
“People thought it was over. I heard stories of 25 and 26-year olds who gave up on their football dreams because someone thought they were too old to pursue a career in football. I didn’t care what people thought, all that mattered was my dream,” says the Bruno FC development coach.
His mentor, Mokwena, also admits he thought playing in the PSL after 30 was a bit of a far-fetched dream.
But come 23 August 2016, history was made – the man they also call Computer walked into his dream when he replaced Mndeni Zikalala in a League game against Ajax Cape Town. Forget that he was brought in just 3 minutes before the end of the game, it was the most memorable moment of his footballing journey.
“I very much wanted to play in the PSL, so I was so happy. I couldn’t believe I was a professional footballer after trying for so many years,” says Mogale, who spent a season at Bakgaga.
While he was making that unforgettable debut, it was all tears of joy back in Soweto. His mother just couldn’t hold back her tears. “I still cry today when I remember that particular day. Out of all we had been through with my child, I felt God had answered our prayers. Even if it was for 2 minutes, I’m glad he realised that dream,” she says.
Mogale has since taken a group of boys aged between 12 and 17 and every day, he imparts life and football skills onto them the same way Mokwena did.
“People come to me and tell me about his work with the young boys. He’s doing exactly what Mourinho (Mokwena) did for him and it makes me proud as a mother,” she adds.
For Mogale, the journey may have been unbearably difficult, but he says the only good time he looks at the past is just to see how far he’s come. All that matters to him is to make a significant difference in the lives of the youngsters he’s been entrusted with.
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By Mthokozisi Dube