Rakhale, Take A Bow
A couple of weeks back we said in this column that despite there being some great footballers in the PSL, no one had really climbed onto the vacant pedestal that elevates a player from being very good, to the darling of South African football.
In my time as a journalist at Soccer Laduma, there was always one player who was the darling of his own club’s fans, and even drew lots of respect from opposition fans around the country. Steve Lekoelea, Jabu Mahlangu, the late Scara Ngobese and Gift Leremi, to name but a few, have stood on that pedestal.
Of late, however, a couple of modern South African players have been displaying some magnificent football. Teko Modise is getting back to his best, Khama Billiat is in scintillating form and even Kingston Nkhatha is rattling the back of the net more often than not. Another player with one hand on the pedestal, slowly pulling himself up, is Sibusiso Vilakazi of Wits, but he has not quite won the whole of SA over as yet.
However, last week, with one touch of the ball, one moment of genius, Thabo Rakhale made not just Mzansi, but the whole world sit up and take notice. He did something that no coaching manual dedicates even a sentence of instruction to… something that no PSL coach will encourage, or maybe even have the imagination to visualise. In fact, the irony is that what Rakhale did on the field is exactly the type of thing that many European coaches, or local coaches who model themselves on Europe’s elite, will say time and again: “Modern football is not about tricks and flicks. That kind of thing has no place in world football and certainly won’t get you to the biggest leagues in Europe.” And yet that one thing is what has made the world sit up and notice.
The one thing that, for the first time in ages, has made Europe sit up and say WOW about South African soccer was an unnecessary piece of skill in the middle of the field that took a player nowhere, that didn’t eliminate an opponent or result in a scoring chance, but rather just made the fans in the stadium smile and brought a million or more eyeballs from all over the world to the PSL for five seconds as the artistry unfolded.
Lewis Rudd, a journalist for Metro in the UK, described the moment of brilliance, writing, “...the latest player to show off the tricks at his disposal is Thabo Rakhale, the Orlando Pirates midfielder who produced this pointless, yet utterly brilliant piece of wizardry during his side’s 2-0 victory over Chippa United in the South Africa Premier League.” He ended off his article by saying, “So no real end product, but no real reason not to admire Rakhale’s mind-blowing work, either.”
Now, how do coaches and club owners of today, with a straight face and clear conscience, come out and say that what South African players naturally want to do has no place on the world stage? How is it that, in a time where stadiums in the PSL are nowhere near close to full and where we are outnumbered in our own stadiums when teams from the continent come and play us, entertainment is discouraged and at an all-time low? Players like Rakhale should be encouraged to express themselves! Whenever he touches the ball, you can feel the buzz in the stadium. One can sense that people want to see what he will do next. Yes, there is a time and a place for it, but that time and place is a lot more often than coaches today would like to admit.
Football stadiums the world over are theatres. As much as professional footballers are sportsman, they are also entertainers. Arena’s are filled because a ticket to the show has been bought and a show is expected – and an entertaining show at that – not this dour, park the bus, hit the channels, boring, copied, archaic form of what ‘professionalism’ used to be 50 years ago.
Yes, there is a beauty in winning and there is a lot to be said for success and the joy it brings the fans. There is also a lot to be said for a team that displays a well-organised structure, are disciplined and hardworking and go about their job in a professional way. But there are thousands of professional football teams out there who do that week in and week out, so why not let our players do things that other players in the world cannot. Let them express themselves and we will not only discover a more authentic image of ourselves as a footballing nation, we will become better at being true to ourselves as well.