Perhaps one of the biggest perks of working for Soccer-Laduma for the last 14 years has been the opportunity it has afforded me to speak to some of the biggest names in the beautiful game. Names that as a football-crazy kid I idolised.
I’ve sat opposite the great Eusebio, a former winner of the Ballon d’Or, and asked him who he would bring on to score a goal - Pele or Eusebio? To which he replied with some disgust, “You must be a crazy coach to have Pele and Eusebio on the bench!”
I’ve taken Hristo Stoichkov, recognised as one of the top 100 players of the 20th century, to task about his coaching methods in South Africa. Had coffee with the great Johan Neeskens. I’ve spent time chatting to Ruud Gullit, Samuel Eto’o, Bryan Robson, Zinedine Zidane, Cesc Fabregas, Paul Scholes, Lee Sharpe, Bruce Grobbelaar and many more legends of the world game.
Locally, I had the great honour of working closely with Doctor Khumalo while he wrote for Soccer-Laduma and spent many a late night discussing football with him. I’ve spent hours talking to Benni McCarthy over the years, yes in interviews, but when he talks football, he talks from the heart, and I now consider him a friend, and not just a footballer. Quinton Fortune, Shaun Bartlett, Gary Bailey, Mark Fish, Lucas Radebe, Brian Baloyi, Steven Pienaar, Steve Lekoelea, Jabu Mahlangu, Teenage Dladla, Tebogo Moloi, Banks Setlhodi, the late Gift Leremi, Lesley Manya-thela and Scara Ngobese... the list goes on of special players, special football people that I have had the honour of getting to know because of this special publication of ours.
I know I’ve left out hundreds of names and there isn’t enough space to mention every single interview here, so apologies if I have offended anyone. But the reason I mention these names is that the more I talk to the ‘special players’, the young ones, the ones in their prime, the ones in their twilight and the ones who the game has long since left behind, the more a very particular trend has become apparent. I think now might be the right time to share it with you, especially for the benefit of those players making career-altering decisions in the coming months.
Let me start by saying, there is a fascinating shift in the ‘weighting’ of what is important to a player as he moves through the various stages of his career. As a youngster looking to make the grade, money isn’t really a factor. All exciting young players want one thing and one thing only, and that is to break into the first team and get as much game time as they can. It’s the game itself that is the ultimate reward. The passion for playing that is most important. The appetite for game time in any talented youngster is insatiable.
As a young player starts to catch the attention of bigger clubs, game time seems to take a back seat, seems to lose its weight in the bigger scheme of things. Sometimes this is because of agents looking for a big payday, not really concerned if a club is the right fit for a player, not concerned about the importance of game time. Sometimes it’s the players themselves, seduced by the promise of riches and fame. And so decisions are made that either make or break a career.
Ironically, as players get older, the special players included, most are looking for something far more important than money. They are looking for game time.
Every single great I have spoken to - there isn’t one exception - doesn’t miss the money or the fame, he misses the game. He misses being out there on the pitch and doing what he was born to do. The ‘bad moves’ these players talk about are usually the ones that brought them the most money and the least game time. They almost always talk of wasted time, wasted opportunities, time lost. They talk of a career that goes by in a flash. And while some will say it, and others will try to hide it, there is nothing that comes close to playing. The greats, yes, some will go on to be coaches but, in comparison to playing the game, coaching and managing comes a distant second.
I’m no agent, but my advice to those young players, who currently have big clubs promising all kinds of money and all kinds of perks, is don’t be seduced by the big time. There is enough money in this league now where your financial security should quite easily be taken care of at any PSL franchise. Far too many of our brightest young talents have gone to big clubs too soon and for the wrong reasons and wasted time on the bench or in the stands. If you’re good enough, if you are a great, the right clubs will come for you, the same way they came for Eusebio, Gullit, Khumalo, Fish and Zidane. The game time and the financial rewards will follow.
Remember, in the game of football, when your time is up, it is up. And no amount of money in the bank can ever bring it back.