When last Friday, 3 September, came and went, so-called “ama 2k” (those born in 2000 or after) would not have understood the anguish and sadness it left in the hearts of many a South African football lover, as it marked 14 years to the day Gift Leremi departed this wretched earth. Oh, it seems like yesterday…
The lad blessed with the nickname “Continental”, and also answering to the sobriquet “Vava Voom”, was such a phenomenon that one can’t help but pity those who were deprived the opportunity to watch him in action. That explains why, every year, either on the occasion of what would have been his birthday or on the anniversary of the day he tragically lost his life, South Africans, without fail, come out to share memories of the gifted star who provided them with enough joyous moments on the pitch to last them a lifetime. To think that this tragedy happened 40 days shy of his 23rd birthday. It does not matter if you are an Orlando Pirates or Mamelodi Sundowns or Kaizer Chiefs fan, or a supporter of any other team for that matter, everyone who was privileged to see him play pauses for a moment to share in the grief of having lost such a talented player at his prime. The Soweto-born Leremi is so highly spoken of, even these many years after his demise, that it should surprise you not when you hear him being mentioned in the same sentence as the likes of the late Ace Ntsoelengoe, Jomo Sono, Professor Ngubane, Doctor Khumalo, etc. He epitomised the style of football South Africans love to see and identify with. Without a doubt, he remains one of the best players to have been produced by this football-loving nation and was a cut above his peers at the time of his death.
Now, I do not mean to bore ama 2k, as is sometimes the case when someone takes you on a trip down memory lane to a time you aren’t familiar with or events that unfolded before you were born, suffice to say magic was this guy’s name of the game. You missed out! I can go further to say his greatest attribute, for me, was that he always seemed in control of the proceedings, as should be the trademark of all playmakers worth their salt. When in possession of the ball, he held on to it lovingly, almost as if his life depended on it, and as an opposition player, you needed to put an extra effort to nick it away from him. To a large extent, methinks, this was informed by the huge confidence he had in his own ability. In fact, such was his ingenuity, that I think half the time he didn’t even need to follow the coach’s instructions and rather reacted to what he saw happening around him on the field, and no one could fault him for that because, in the end, he always made things happen. More like “I got this”, to borrow from your diction, ama 2k. His swagger and confidence meant that even before entering the pitch, just standing next to him in the tunnel, as an opposition player you were already defeated. Where do you begin competing with someone with so much confidence in himself?
Leremi would glide past defenders like they were invisible objects. Ask those who played against him, they’ll tell you. His vision was out of this world. In football, though, you are only as good as those around you, as it is a team sport. Even for a Lionel Messi, your teammates make you shine because they understand your strengths better. They are the people you spend most of your time with, be it on the training ground, trying to perfect your craft, or in camp preparing for the next game. And in the likes of Benedict Vilakazi, Joseph Makhanya and Lebohang Mokoena, Leremi had the perfect partners-in-crime. Talk about a bunch of little guys who made life a living hell for many opposition teams. Who can ever forget that 2004/05 season under Kosta Papic at Orlando Pirates, where these and other Bucs players endeared themselves to Mzansi fans with their intricate passing game and quick movement into the opposition half, not to mention the precision in everything they did? Man, that team ran you ragged. Just unfortunate that it all ended in agony, with Kaizer Chiefs pipping them to the league title on the last day of the season, but to this day, fans can’t stop talking about that team. Why? Because we love a beautiful thing in Mzansi, and it’s no exception with football. And Gift Leremi fed that addiction.
All of that said, one is left pondering whether there was more for Leremi to give, considering he always seemed to operate in first gear. Could our beloved superstar have been cheating us then, not giving his absolute best? Was it a comfort zone thing? Why had he not moved overseas already? Well, looking at how young he was, it is death that cheated us and robbed us of seeing many more moments of “Vava Voom” expressing his God-given talent and inspiring other kids who came from a similar background and who were just as talented and just needed that breakthrough. I guess only God knows where he could been with his career, or what he could have achieved, had he not been so tragically taken away from us. However, another question that keeps gnawing at me is why our game is no longer producing characters and personalities of the kind of Gift Leremi. Back in the day, masses would flock to the stadiums just to see Leremi or Steve Lekoelea in action, even taking their whole families with to share in the experience, something that no longer happens these days. Players who make your heart skip a few beats or your blood levels shoot up, purely because of what they are able to do with a ball on their feet, are sadly few and far between. The honest truth is that in the main, we are left with players who can’t trap a ball to save their life, can’t put in a decent cross, can’t direct a header towards target from a corner kick. Can’t, can’t, can’t. It’s just a whole bunch of “can’ts”.
May your soul continue to rest in peace, Mpho Gift Leremi.
Catch y’all on the rebound,