For a player who grew up in the Vaal it is always a dream to play in Gauteng, but it was different with Papi Zothwane who had to take an off-ramp to Maritzburg City and then Golden Arrows before he realized his dream of playing for a big Gauteng team, in the form of Mamelodi Sundowns.
The Bophelong-born player started his professional career at Maritzburg City after he was scouted from amateur football.
“Maritzburg City got me from Real Rangers, we were playing Bob Save for Maritzburg City, they saw me there. It was Manqoba Mngqithi, Reggie Shelembe and coach Thabo Dladla,” Zothwane recalls.
“Taking into consideration that I was coming from Caslte Regional League straight to the First Division, I thought I’d need to get experience and adjust but I managed to play all the games for two seasons.”
The former central midfielder caught everyone’s eye during his time at Golden Arrows where he won the Rookie of the Season in 2003.
Zothwane recalls the Arrows side that had the likes of Mlungisi Gumbi, Tshepo Ntsoane, Lucky Sibeko and Sheldon Roux.
“That was a talented generation but I came as a new player from Maritzburg City and I thought it would be a tough season, taking into consideration that it was my first contract in the PSL. Luckily I worked so hard, I joined the team a month before the season started.
“That was the highlight of my football career as a player, coming from an unknown place in the Vaal, stamping my authority in the PSL and getting Rookie of the Year against Surprise Moriri and Marawaan Bantam. I think that was best season playing professional football.
“I believe I did very well there and also playing for Bafana Bafana under coach Carlos Parreira, I think those were the best moments of my career.”
“I was competing with a lot of talented players; it was Tshepo Ntsoane, Mlungisi Gumbi, Manqoba Mkhize, Andile Cele, Mfundo Mathonsi and Mdu Nxele, they were all top players the difference was that I worked so hard during pre-season,” said Zothwane.
Though they had a formidable team but the sour pill he had to swallow was to leave Arrows without winning any silverware.
“It was very disappointing really, we tried SAA (Supa 8), we really tried because most times we were always in the top eight, but that was not good enough with the kind of squad that we had.
“But I think it paved a way for the next generation, because the same vision that Arrows had was to win something. It paved the way for the likes of Richard Henyekane, Thanduyise Khuboni and Nhlanhla Zothwane (to win the MTN8 in 2009),” added Zothwane.
After cementing his place in the starting berth at Arrows, Zothwane could feel he needed a new challenge and after a failed move to Kaizer Chiefs, he finally signed for another big club, Sundowns.
“Kaizer Chiefs were looking at my contract, that it was ending and they pursued me to go to Naturena. So Bobby Motaung was the one behind everything and things didn’t happen the way I expected them.
“I had to go back to Arrows and played two seasons, there was a time where I felt I reached the ceiling, there were youngsters coming up behind me and I felt it was time to give them a chance because I was playing every game, week in and week out.
“Even when I was tired or injured coach Manqoba would tell me that I had to play, so I felt it was time to pave the way and go to bigger challenges. I eventually moved to Sundowns and that time they were coached by Hristo Stoichkov. I did acclimatize and the coach believed in my ability and I played the most number of games.
“But it was difficult with injuries, I had to be on the sidelines, come back to fight for my place and get injured again. I think my time there was hampered by injuries, because I remember I had two surgeries on my knee,” continued Zothwane.
After struggling because of injuries at Chloorkop for two seasons and the team changed coaches with Johan Neeskens coming in, Zothwane found himself a new home at Bloemfontein Celtic.
“I played two seasons at Sundows regularly, in my last season when there was Neskeens I was no longer playing and it was clear that they were not gonna use me because we had two different groups; the one training in the main field and the other in another ground and I was part of the latter. So I felt unwanted, I wanted the season to end so that I could leave. Then I got a six-month loan move to Celtic and after that I could feel I was fine with playing football.”
Having played for more than a decade in the PSL, Zothwane had some opponents who gave him a hard time in the middle of the park and he believes it was against Kaizer Chiefs and Silver Stars where he would face tough opponents.
“Tinashe Nengomasha for Kaizer Chiefs and Stanely Kgatla for Silver Stars those two were the toughest opponents I ever faced.”
“Kgatla would man-mark you wherever you are in the field. Nengomasha, they would tell him Papi must not touch the ball, so those were the players that I knew that playing against them was really difficult.”
Zothwane is planning to give back to football by guiding players to become great assets like the likes of Zinedine Zidane, who have played well and went on to become great coaches.
“Like I have started, I went to coach Arrows Multichoice Diski Challenge team and we managed to win the league and Diski Shield Cup. So I felt that I’ve contributed in the development at Arrows and I could move to Uthongathi as an assistant coach.
“I so wish one day to be one of the best coaches in South Africa and display the knowledge that I’ve gained in football.
“If you have played good football as a player, I think it must reflect in your team as a coach like Pep (Guardiola) and (Zinedine) Zidane. You can see in their teams that it’s how they played during their time as players.
“The style of football played by Mamelodi Sundowns at the moment is very interesting, I want my team to play like that one day. I’d also like to be part of the national team, even if it’s U23 to prepare players for their future.”
By Wonga Sirayi
FARPost’s KZN Reporter