‘If you’re going through hell, keep going’ always sounds so cliché!
It’s one of those sayings that we’ve all heard at some point in our lives. But how often do we apply it when the poop hits the fan?
The day April 30, 2019 represents Yanga Baliso’s darkest moment! His father, coach and confidant – Michael Baliso – was shot dead by callous criminals near their Gugulethu home in Cape Town.
His dad had been an integral part of his journey, watching him develop a love for the world’s most beautiful game.
It makes sense why they had a close relationship: father and son had something in common, they both loved football.
“He loved football, he was the owner and coach of Gugulethu United, also transporting the kids he coached with his own hard earned cash,” prominent scout Mzonzima Anderson Xheshisa tells FARPost.
If Michael Baliso could sacrifice his resources to keep kids from his community off the streets so they could have the brightest future, how much more did he want for his own Yanga?
So, the club he founded, Gugulethu United, became the nursery where he started honing his son’s football skills.
“My dad formed a team at some point, he used to take me to training all the time when I was six. He didn’t have my age group so he would let me run around while the older boys were playing,” Yanga Baliso tells FARPost.
Xheshisa, the man who spotted AmaZulu defender Tapelo Xoki in a 17-0 drubbing, fell in love with Baliso when he was only nine.
On a field with 22 kids, Xheshisa saw a bossy midfielder in the young lad. Baliso, who was now turning out for Clairwood, lorded it over that midfield.
“He was bossy in midfield, he was way above his peers and I knew there was something in him. Most nine year olds want to showboat, but he was direct in his game.
“He was good at long range and short passes. If at nine or 10 you do that, you switch passes – there’s something unique about you. Each time he lost the ball he dropped back,” he says.
Xheshisa, who worked for Old Mutual Academy as a scout, then approached Baliso Senior with the hope of signing the youngster.
However, the bossy little man had also caught the eye of Ajax Cape Town scouts, who ran the most reputable academy in the country.
It was a toss between the two. The boy was torn between. Luckily, the two trained on different days as if to accommodate him.
Ajax training sessions were scheduled for Monday, Wednesday and Friday while Old Mutual trained on Tuesday and Thursday.
“While I was going to Ajax I was also on trial at Old Mutual. It worked out perfectly because the training days were different,” recalls the former Sunland Primary school schoolboy.
Naturally, the choice would be Ajax because of their track record and association with Dutch giants Ajax Amsterdam.
For the next five years he would hone his skills at Ikamva as a future Urban Warrior. His talents then captured the interest of Orlando Pirates, who snapped him up for their MDC side.
But before the move to Gauteng, Raymond Pienaar, a Cape Town-based coach and player manager, remembers introducing Baliso to his contacts in Sweden. The youngster already had a yearning to ply his trade overseas.
“I actually introduced Yanga and his father to contacts from Sweden. We actually tried twice to send Yanga to Sweden before his move to Orlando Pirates,” Pienaar tells FARPost.
Of course, Baliso never cracked the nod for the first team in Soweto in his first two years at the Buccaneers, eventually reaching out to Roger De Sa, who had moved to Platinum Stars at the time. The two knew each other from Ajax where they came close to working together before Pirates snapped up Baliso.
However, De Sa’s Stars were deep in a battle against the chop and adding a youngster was not ideal.
So when De Sa relocated the team from Rustenberg to Cape Town to form Cape Umoya, Baliso got a loan move to the new club for regular game-time in the NFD.
He returned to Bucs after that season, but with no guarantees of playing in the first team, opted to terminate his contract.
“After the season I had with Cape Umoya, they gave me an option to either go on another loan or terminate the contract. I decided to terminate the contract because I didn’t want to be floating around,” Baliso says.
“Sometimes it takes time to settle at a club so I felt it wouldn’t help to be in Durban one moment and then Limpopo, so we agreed to part ways.”
He feels the Soweto giants never gave him a fair shot. “I’m disappointed because I wanted to play for the club and represent the badge,” he says.
“I wanted to achieve things they had not achieved in a long time. I wanted to bring back that good feeling [to the fans] but obviously I wouldn’t do it alone. I felt they were just sleeping on my talent.”
Tragedy then struck! Dad, who had always wanted to do stuff for him, was gone. The pain of losing him in such a gruesome manner was unbearable.
How would he move on without his hero? “His father played a massive role in his development. Of course, losing his father did have an impact on him because they were very, very close,” adds Pienaar.
At that point, only aged 22, he felt he had not drawn enough knowledge and wisdom from his dad about life. “I really didn’t get enough information, his love, his blessing, his teachings,” Baliso says.
“I respected him in a way that people would think I’m scared of him. I was never a person that would go to my dad and crack a joke.”
His death, he says, “is the reason I moved to Europe”.
“I couldn’t take it, I was just going through a lot. When you’re stressed and you’re from the township it’s difficult to deal with things. I could have drowned myself in alcohol but it would be a continuous cycle. So I decided to leave the country,” says the talented central midfielder.
When you want to leave your country hastily to try your luck overseas as an African player, you may not get an agent ready to take you there.
As ruthless as life is, it has no pity on the grieving. Sometimes, you just have to take the jump yourself.
With some of the money Pirates had paid him out, young Yanga took off to Sweden to try his luck.
“I paid my own flight tickets to travel for trials in Europe. I asked someone to help me find clubs where I could go for trials,” says Baliso, adding that he had to stay at some hotel while attending the trials.
But what he didn’t know was that his timing was wrong. The Swedish season runs from March to November when it’s warmer. The off-season break is when the biting winter is at its peak.
“I went in July and it was in the middle of the season and clubs weren’t signing players at that point. There was also the issue of foreign spots being filled in some clubs and budgetary issues,” he explains.
After trying his luck at three clubs in Sweden, nothing came out of his efforts. His next port of call was Finland.
“I was training with an academy [Pargas IF, then a fourth division side] and the first team coach asked me to help them win the league. It was going to be for three months.
“When I came in I was so influential and we never lost a game, now they’re in the third tier,” says the 24-year-old.
That remarkable start that got him a couple of Man of the Match accolades and the October Player of the Month award earned him a move to the topflight.
It also helped that his Pargas coach had a good relationship with his IFK Mariehamn counterpart. He recommended the Gugulethu boy to Finnish top-flight side.
“The coach was so crazy about me. He offered to let me stay, unfortunately he was not going to be the coach the following season,” adds Baliso.
The coming in of the new coach at the 2016 Finnish champions hasn’t worked out well, leaving Baliso pondering his future.
“It’s been a challenging time, injuries have also affected me. I haven’t played much under the new coach,” he says.
“I’m looking to move to another club on loan or terminate the contract and have my agent find me a new club.
“I believe so much in myself, I have so much confidence in myself that I can do the job wherever.”
He admits it’s not easy to play overseas, far from his mother and siblings.
“You just train and go back to your apartment. When you’ve had a bad day, you’re all alone,” he adds.
But Pienaar is convinced Baliso has the pedigree to rise above the tide just “to keep his father’s memory alive”.
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By Mthokozisi Dube