How Mashaba destroyed Mokotjo’s international career

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So here it is. The Kamohelo Mokotjo story that has to be written, as the transfer window slams shut in Europe tonight with Southampton showing a (South African record) R105m interest in the FC Twente midfielder.

It is a sad tale of arrogance and poor judgement, miscommunication and wasted opportunity for South Africa… much like the equally bizarre dumping of Thulani Serero and May Mahlangu, two more top young talents we will might see in a Bafana Bafana shirt again.
It starts shortly after the most recent re-appointment of “cheapest option” Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba as our national coach at the end of July last year.

When Mashaba picked his first Bafana squad for the opening AFCON Group A qualifiers against Sudan away and Nigeria at home, Mokotjo was an automatic selection for South Africa, having been blooded by Gordon Igesund against Mozambique in September 2012.

Playing in the Ere Divisie for FC Twente after spells with Feyenoord and PEC Zwolle, the 23-year-old was getting rave reviews in Holland, topping the charts statistically and winning over fans in Enschede.

It was no surprise. The lad from dusty Kutloanong, 10km outside the remote mining community of Odendaalsrus in the Free State, was first spotted by no lesser legend than Zinedane Zidane in 2003 when South Africa’s Under 12s swept to victory in the Danone Nations Cup in Paris (http://www.southafrica.info/2010/u12soccer-080903.htm). World Cup winner ZZ picked Mokotjo out as his player of the tournament and a bright career was underway.

Makotjo enjoyed a single season for PSL champions SuperSport United in Tshwane under Gavin Hunt in 2009. Hunt, speaking exclusively tonight, remembers: “Kamohelo was a fantastic player back then. The thing about him was his technique. He could really pass a ball. I used him as a substitute that season, we were winning the league… but I knew he was going to Holland.”

Both Serero and Mokotjo are clearly good enough to play in the Premier League – or even Germany’s Bundesliga or Spain’s La Liga – but Mashaba’s attitude has effectively blocked that lucrative path both men

And so it came to erm… pass. So what exactly went wrong when he was called up by Shakes? Mokotjo turned up in Johannesburg and flew to Khartoum with Mashaba’s brand new Bafana. But he didn’t even appear on the bench as Shakes recorded his first win in his latest spell in charge of our footballing fortunes.

Mokotjo then flew back to Cape Town for the Nigeria game, was named on the bench, but did not come on in a 0-0 draw against the reigning AFCON champions.

Bemused, bothered and bewildered, Mokotjo return to Enschede to await developments after flying 17,000kms (Amsterdam-London-Johannesburg-Khartoum-Cape Town-Johannesburg-Amsterdam) and failing to kick a ball in anger. And when Mashaba picked his second squad for the home and away clashes against the Congo, he found himself DROPPED.

Here, word for word, is Mashaba’s explanation for that decision: “When I looked at Mokotjo in training, there were some signs of him being heavy and sluggish. I think the process of finding a new club in Holland took its toll on him.

“He’s a good player, and I think with time, if he works hard, he will be all right.”

Mokotjo was having none of it. Here’s his response: “I honestly don’t want to go on about not being selected for Bafana, the trainer should select the players that he wants. But the reasons he gave for not picking me were surprising and very strange.

“I was in camp the whole time and the coach never said a thing. Now, out of nowhere, he has stuff to say about me in the media that I find disrespectful. He could have just told me what he thought of me to my face rather than calling me heavy and sluggish and saying that moving to a new club has taken its toll on me. That I don’t appreciate because none of it is true.”

Football experts remain utterly flummoxed by the whole saga. Did Mashaba really see a chubby no-hoper when highly-rated scouts and coaches saw finely-honed talent? Still, Mashaba was unbeaten and the “Shakes Knows Best” show limped on to impressive AFCON qualification before last week’s woeful elimination with a single point.

And that would be the last we heard of it. Clearly one of our finest young players was no longer going to play for his country again under the current coach despite all the talk about SAFA’s vision for the future.

Only Mashaba went further. Next he had May Mahlangu BANNED for turning down a Bafana call due to fatigue. Then, even more bizarrely, he “went bezerk” (according to a SAFA official, I have the SMS on my phone) and didn’t pick South Africa’s only Champions League star Serero for AFCON2015 despite his Man of the Match performance in qualifying against Sudan at home.
My attempts to understand that peculiar episode are written along with a SAFA document clearly showing the nature of Mashaba’s blunder (Serero was due to report for camp on January 2 but was axed on December 30, work that one out): http://neal-collins.blogspot.com/2015/01/exclusive-safa-statement-that-proves.html

And then, today, the whole ugly Mokotjo episode flared again, with news that Southampton were ready to offer £6m for the South African midfielder, responsible for 12 assists and one of the best pass-accuracy percentages in the Ere Divisie this season.

Having played under new Southampton coach Ronald Koeman at Feyenoord, the Saints’ move was predictable – but crucially flawed. Mokotjo fails on two fronts: the FIFA rule preventing a player representing three sides in a season (Zwolle, Twente, Southampton) AND the English FA ruling restricting footballing work permits to nationals outside the European Community if they haven’t played 80 percent of their national team’s competitive games.

And so we’re back to Mashaba. The man who was sacked in 2003 for dropping our European-based stars for a friendly against England. He’s done it again. By falling out with Mokotjo, for no apparent reason, the chances of Kamohelo becoming our nation’s most expensive footballer are severely restricted.

With Mahlangu set to move to Turkey – where restrictions on foreign players have been lifted – we must ask if Shakes has effectively ruined South Africa’s chances of having another Steven Pienaar in the near future.

Both Serero and Mokotjo are clearly good enough to play in the Premier League – or even Germany’s Bundesliga or Spain’s La Liga – but Mashaba’s attitude has effectively blocked that lucrative path both men. He prefers to pick journeymen playing in the lower leagues of Europe or PSL “stars” some of whom can’t even get a game for their clubs in South Africa.

One glimmer of hope remains. Gabriel Paulista, Arsenal’s new signing, was given “special dispensation” due to his age and the size of his transfer fee (£11.3m) and the UK Home Office granted him a work permit last month despite Gabriel’s failure to appear for Brazil.

If South Africa wants footballers playing at the top level in Europe, we must rely on such favours. Unless Shakes Mashaba – under pressure from SAFA to reconsiders his selection process according to the Sunday papers – backtracks. Mashaba’s response: “I don’t think it’s necessary to look at these players again.” And on Robert Marawa’s show tonight, a cryptic: “They can always telephone me.”

Shocking. I rest my case.

By Neal Collins – @Nealcol

This column originally appeared on www.neal-collins.blogspot.com

– By Opinion: Neal Collins, Football Analyst