Vuyo Mere’s football career – and life, for that matter – should have ended a decade ago. When Mamelodi Sundowns gave him a red card in 2011 for his wild off-the-field behaviour because they felt he was tarnishing the club’s image, the rightback thought he had no future and even contemplated suicide.
But Mere, 38, held on and now, in his 21st season since turning professional, he has the honour of being the longest-serving active player in the Premier Soccer League. Having signed an 18-month contract with TS Galaxy in January, he says he is blessed to still have a club after being shown the door by Swallows FC, a club he had served with distinction and which he helped back into the elite league.
Though he feels the Birds were disingenuous in their reasons for kicking him out, Mere is grateful Galaxy owner Tim Sukazi saw in him “a young boy who can still contribute to the game” when others had written him off because of his age. That it was Sukazi who pulled the strings behind the scenes to get Mere a club after the Sundowns episode is something he only discovered in January when he signed with Galaxy.
“I was stunned to find out that it was the chairman who initiated my move to Platinum Stars when my future seemed doomed, grootman (big brother). I remember getting a call from Susan Phala [then the events manager at Platinum Stars] telling me to come to training on Monday. Back then, Tim was Thuso Phala’s agent and he spoke to his mom about my plight. I was under the impression that Stars knew I was free, hence them calling me up. And then the other day I found out from the chairman that he’d worked behind the scenes to help me. And all these years he never said anything because he didn’t do it to get praise. He just wanted to help me.”
At the time Mere was in a desperate situation as Sundowns not renewing his contract came as a nasty surprise. “It was painful, grootman,” Mere recalls during an interview in the rarefied atmosphere of HeronBridge College’s football grounds in Fourways, Johannesburg, following a training session.
“At that time I had just come back from being in the national team and we had played Equatorial Guinea. I was on top form and there I was being told it was over. And the guy who was telling me was just a messenger. I couldn’t even ask him for an explanation or reason with him. He told me I could call the president [Patrice Motsepe], but said that a process had been followed and they are hearing stories about me that are not the image they want to portray as a club. It was all about my reputation as a bad boy, a party animal, and they didn’t like that. They said it was bad for the club.”
Silent and suicidal
Being Vuyo Mere, though, he expected that he would get calls from other clubs clamouring for his signature. None came. For three months. But what hurt the most was the reaction from his loved ones.
“You know, grootman, parents don’t usually tell you when they are disappointed in you. But you see it from their facial expression and how they behave. Mine stopped going out like they used to, no doubt afraid of being pointed to as the parents of that bad boy who got kicked out of Sundowns. And suddenly those Mere Sundowns shirts that they used to wear with pride began gathering dust in the wardrobe. My dad no longer spoke to me like he used to. I was devastated.”
Mere, who lived in Kelvin in the north of Johannesburg, became a recluse. “I just locked myself in the house. For months I stayed at home. I just didn’t want to go out. Imagine, Vuyo Mere the party animal not wanting to go out. I said to myself this is the end of the world for me. At some point, grootman, I decided you know what, let me end it all. I began to have those suicide notions. Let me just get rid of this burden I am carrying. Let me just go.”
And he concluded to do so one Sunday afternoon. “I had so many tablets at my house, grootman, it was like a chemist. At Sundowns you could get all types of painkillers and all tablets. You got everything you needed just to take care of the body. Whenever I went to the doctor I could ask for anything, so I had plenty. Of course, I didn’t know how the suicide thing was done, but I decided I was going to try it and whatever happens, happens.”
But before he could go through with it, he had something to take care of. “I had that guilty feeling, grootman. I felt let me just say something to give my parents some closure. I didn’t want them to remain with unanswered questions. So I called and told them I was done with life. I said to my mom I’m sorry for what I am about to do, and as she was trying to understand what I was on about, I dropped the phone. My dad then called me and said to me he’d just spoken to my mom and he was trying to understand what was going on. He then said to me to hang tight, he would call me back.”
Mere waited for his father’s call, but it never came. Instead, a few hours later, he received a call from the security at the gate of his complex. “The security tells me I’ve got visitors and I hear my father’s voice saying, ‘Dis ons. Maak oop die hek (It’s us, open the gate).’ And I go wat gaan aan (what’s going on?) and I opened the gate. I think it normally takes about four hours to drive from Bloem to Joburg. But my parents took about three hours and 15 minutes.”
Rescue and revival
Mere was actually relieved that his parents came to his rescue. “Have you ever wanted to do something but you were scared, grootman? When something happens to stop you from doing it, you get so relieved. My parents and I hugged each other and I cried and they then cried. But then a few minutes later, after I’d told them what was eating me up, there was laughter in the house. Ironically, the television was showing an old Sundowns match against SuperSport United, an SAA Supa8 semifinal, and we watched it. My mother stayed with me for a few days, but my father had to go back because he had a taxi business then.”
Now convinced there was something to live for, Mere started training with lower-division side Alex United. He was approached by Orlando Pirates marketing manager Nkosana Khoza, son of club chairman Irvin Khoza, to join their amateur feeder team Yebo Yes. “I flatly refused. I told him, from Sundowns to Yebo Yes? No ways, my man, you are killing me! But he tried to make me understand that I’d be making my way to the Pirates senior team. I still said no.”
It was then that Susan Phala called. What happened to Mere at Platinum Stars is common knowledge among discerning followers of local football. Not only did he become a much better player, he also became a consummate professional and led the North West side to Telkom Knockout glory.
“Coach Cavin Johnson got to Platinum Stars just after I’d finished my first season and said to me, ‘I don’t care what they say, I am going to make you captain.’ I was stunned. I found senior players such as Henrico Botes, Elias Ngwepe and Robert Ng’ambi and you are choosing me to be captain? I had to ask for strength and wisdom from God to lead the team, and the senior guys were very good because they gave me their support.”
That he managed to transition from being Vuyo the bad boy to captain fantastic had something to do with his new environment. The sleepy Phokeng, where Stars were based, and even Rustenburg didn’t have the nightlife of Gauteng. This forced Mere to behave and he channelled his energy into his football. He arrived early at training, rested more and did extra sessions, which helped him revive his career. “My life changed because I needed to change and set an example to the other players,” says Mere.
A date with destiny
Getting married changed his outlook on life and helped him become an even better footballer. “While I was still single, I’d behave and understand that I’m going to training so I must sleep early. But I had a very poor diet. I ate everything. I used to eat magwinya (vetkoek), McDonald’s burgers… I was not helping myself. And then I meet this woman, she starts cooking a meal for me and she decides to be my dietician. It changed everything.
“I would stay at home with her wondering what the gents are up to because I would rather be out with them. I’d be very bored, sitting with legs elevated up on the couch watching TV, or most of the time the TV would be watching me. But, grootman, the next day at training I am a machine, I am flexi, I am not tired, I am performing like never before. All of a sudden I am outplaying the younger ones. I liked that and I knew that this had to be my new way of life.”
Mere has since been blessed with two boys and says they are the centre of his life. In everything he does now, he first considers how it would have an impact on them. It is a pretty big change from his “good old” bad days at Sundowns when he used to sport blond hair and party like crazy.
“You have to remember, grootman, I joined Sundowns as a young boy from a very solid academy structure at Hellenic, where we were kept under lock and key. Even after I graduated to the pro ranks, the late David Byrne treated me like an academy kid. So to move from a club like that with its 200 supporters to a big one like Sundowns, who played in front of crowds in their thousands, was always going to be a challenge.
“And what didn’t help me was that the club had just signed other youngsters such as Robyn Johannes, Paulus Masehe and later Thabiso Rammile. All of us stayed together with no parents or guardians. We had to take care of ourselves. We were all playing so well, driving nice cars, and we attracted the wrong friends – non-footballers who introduced us to the fast life of Joburg.”
A religious experience
The faith-like centre of Platinum Stars, including prayer sessions, also helped Mere turn his life around. He speaks with humility and he respects everyone he interacts with regardless of their stature. He often uses grootman as a term of respect when speaking to his seniors. When talking to those his age or younger, he calls them skhokho, a friendly term of endearment. His faith has also played a role in his longevity.
“I am around, not because I am special or one of the more talented players. What helped me was that I realised that without God in my life nothing was going to be possible. So I started walking not on the straight path, but rather on the narrow path that most of us didn’t want to go on. I looked in the mirror and realised that there are many people who are depending on me and many people have to eat and go to school, and they are looking at me for all that. There was no way I was going to let them down.”
He feels the same way about Sukazi and TS Galaxy: he cannot let them down. “The welcome has been brilliant here. I feel appreciated and part of the family, and all I want to do is pay them back with good performances.
“The most special part about this is that when everybody saw me like I am in a wheelchair, the chairman instead saw me as a player capable of helping his club. He remembered me from my days at the academy at Hellenic where we first met, and saw that potential. How do you disappoint a person who views you like that? How do you not give back to someone who sees the quality that no one else seems to see?”