The most-capped player in the history of Bafana Bafana, Aaron Mokoena, also copped the most abuse despite his leadership qualities and longevity. “I always say it becomes easier when you play for bigger clubs in South Africa to be among the loved ones when it comes to the national team itself,” said Mokoena.
The 40-year-old former Bafana captain retired in 2013 with 107 caps, having spent 13 years overseas too. Despite his tumultuous relationship with supporters, he was trusted by many coaches in a Bafana career that saw him hold the record as the youngest player to ever don the green and gold for 15 years. The trials and tribulations of that career prepared “Mbazo” well for the current phase of his life as assistant coach at Cape Town City.
“I had a lot of fans who idolised me and had the ones who felt that somebody else should have been the captain, but it is what you get in football. I travelled the world, I played in big leagues, I played in big cups – it wasn’t a fluke. It never bothered me who does what, who loves me or not. All I wanted was to achieve my goal, which I did,” said Mokoena.
“Now it’s another chapter of my life where I have to look back and say I did what I had to do. I’ve championed what I needed to do and I’ve ticked boxes. Now it’s all about moving on to the next chapter. People will always talk. Now it’s all about myself, my family, the environment that I’m at – being loyal to my club and wherever I’m employed at.”
Ajax Amsterdam reunion
Mokoena was roped in by the South African Football Association (Safa) as assistant team manager of the men’s senior national team in 2017. Working with veteran team manager Barney Khujane, the aim was for Mokoena to take over from him. His graduation to team manager looked like a good fit as the holder of a sport management degree, a Uefa C licence and being the most-capped Bafana player, but the organisation’s financial troubles derailed that plan, said Mokoena.
At City, he has reunited with his former mentor and coach, Jan Olde Riekerink, to put that licence to good use. “I remember I had the chat with the chairman [John Comitis] and he told me, obviously, that coach Jan is now in charge of the team. We spoke about the fact that we worked together, and that talk led to me joining the club. I have put out there to John that I’m a Uefa C licence holder and I would love to get myself into coaching, and he invited me over to start working with the club. That’s how everything came about.”
Mokoena gets animated when he talks about working with Riekerink. “It means a lot to me. I always say I learnt a lot when I was a youngster at Ajax Amsterdam working under coach Jan. I grew with everything that I learnt from him. He believed that as a youngster you must have a foundation or the base, and that’s exactly what is still in me. Coming to work with him now is absolutely great for me.
“The atmosphere and being in Cape Town feels like I’m back in Europe again. But [it’s] a great shift for me, a great environment with a great start to my new life and chapter in the coaching. It’s a different city, Cape Town, compared to other cities in the country… I never thought that I’ll come and stay here. So far I’m enjoying it. In terms of the long term, I feel like being in Cape Town is where I want to be at and it would be nice, actually, as I would be a product of Cape Town City,” said Mokoena.
“It would be nice in the future to be the head coach and especially be the head coach of the team that I have started with in my coaching. Obviously, for a coach, you need to be comfortable in the environment you want to work in. I believe in the fact that as I’m learning at the moment and as I’ve chosen to work at City, you would sort of plough back by being the head coach. Hopefully, that dream will come true.”
Opening doors overseas
Among the players that Mokoena works with these days is Fagrie Lakay, who now holds the record of being the youngest player to represent Bafana. Lakay took the record from Mamelodi Sundowns’ Rivaldo Coetzee, who took it from Mbazo. But unlike Mokoena, Lakay and Coetzee couldn’t build on that record to have long careers abroad and in the national team. That’s what Mokoena would like to help with at the Citizens.
“I wanted to engage with players where I see that I can have an input. I know the players now tend to listen better to us as we have played the game. So, for me what I’m bringing through is to plough back my experiences,” Mokoena said.
“I believe there’s a lot of talent here. They won’t need much from me but my expertise. The experience will probably help other players to grow up. I’m sure some players would want to play abroad. What I’m bringing as well is that work abroad. I still have contacts and I would try help where I can help at, where I feel like players have to move abroad. And that is what the chairman has emphasised, that he doesn’t want to sell players to PSL clubs but would want to see players moving abroad… which I think it’s what we should do, like South African clubs and Safa.
“We need to send more players abroad. I believe, with all due respect, that football here in South Africa is huge but abroad is where you can learn a lot. That’s where you will get to be known and be called the best, because you will be rubbing shoulders with the best.”
Having spent 13 years playing in Europe, Mokoena has some advice and insights for those who want to follow in his footsteps. “I always say it is possible out there, you know. But for me, it’s about how much players want it. Do they want to stay in South Africa and earn rands? Do they want to rub shoulders with the well known or the best? It’s a personal choice,” he said.
“When I talk to the boys, I always say if you want to be the best you really need to sacrifice and change your mentality, be a champion. I always say you have to think of being a champion to be a champion. Never cut corners. It’s never easy going out there, but it is possible. I can name a few players that went abroad and did it. You know, Benni McCarthy went and did it, I went and did it, Lucas Radebe did and so did Phil Masinga as well.
“It is possible out there. It’s hard work, but it’s how much you want it. I know some players feel comfortable where they are, but others want to break barriers, others want to break our records. It’s a personal choice, but whoever wants to go out there, I want to say it’s all about the sacrifice.”
Mokoena’s focus right now is the Citizens, but should there be an opportunity to return overseas, he wouldn’t think twice. “I would never refuse that, but at the moment it’s about where I am. I would probably say I will plough back my experience at City, win prizes at City, grow as a coach and the rest will follow.”