Kamohelo Mokotjo did not grow up with an affinity to any football team. While most of his schoolmates pledged their allegiances to clubs around South Africa, Bafana Bafana’s metronomic midfielder obsessed over individual players, particularly those playing in England.
On his bedroom wall in Kutloanong, just outside the Free State town of Odendaalsrus, he plastered the images of Benni McCarthy, Steven Pienaar, Quinton Fortune, Lucas Radebe and Phil Masinga. These stars looked like him and spoke like him. They represented his people, and yet they had climbed a seemingly insurmountable summit to reach the promised land of world football.
“The English Premier League always represented the peak of the game,” Mokotjo told New Frame from his home in south-west London, not far from Griffin Park where he plays a key role in midfield for Championship side Brentford. “Those legends who had made it were my heroes.”
Mokotjo now finds himself in a position he never imagined he’d occupy. He is the highest ranked South African in English football despite playing for a side 33 places behind Manchester City and Liverpool who are fighting for the English Premier League. Percy Tau may be on the books of Brighton & Hove Albion but is currently on loan at Royale Union Saint-Gilloise in Belgium’s second division because he couldn’t get a work permit to play in England.
“I can’t believe that!” Mokotjo exclaimed when he was told of his lofty situation. “How can that be? I had no idea. I won’t try read too much into it. I think of myself as a grounded person. I’m goal orientated and being South Africa’s highest ranked player in England was never one of them. It doesn’t add any more pressure on me that I already feel.”
Flying South Africa’s flag
Mokotjo describes himself as an ambassador for his country. He has introduced his teammates to South African artists like Cassper Nyovest, Nasty C, Black Coffee and AKA. He insists that his teammates and coaches try to pronounce his name correctly (something many of them have yet to do) and is often regaling those around him with tales of his homeland.
Mokotjo was always destined for the big stage. He travelled to Paris in 2002 as a 10-year-old to take part in the Under-12 World Cup known as the Danone Nations Cup. A year later he returned as captain and lifted the trophy after the Tsetse Flies beat Portugal 2-0 in the final. He received the trophy and the Player of the Tournament award from French legend, Zinedine Zidane.
When he arrived back home, SuperSport United came knocking and offered the youngster a place in their prestigious academy in Gauteng. His parents were reluctant, understandably so given their diminutive son had yet to turn 12 and would now be moving to stay in another province. But they eventually agreed. Mokotjo packed his bags and embarked on a journey that would shape his life.
“I kept mostly to myself when I was younger and even at that age I was independent,” he said. “I missed my folks. Of course I did. I was so young. But a phone call was enough for me. I was never mama’s boy and didn’t get home sick. My emotions have never controlled me. Emotions have never taken first place in my life.”
Maturing at an early age
His attitude and precocious technical abilities made him stand out from an early age. Most of his teammates were playing a flamboyant game – shibobos and tsamayas were as sought after as goals and skilful assists. But not for Mokotjo.
“I look back sometimes and think [about] the qualities I had as a youngster, and how I was so very different from the other boys, it’s not surprising I made it and they didn’t,” he said matter of factly. “I think for my age I played very mature football. My basics were good, my technique was good. I never wasted the ball. It’s strange to have it at that age but fortunately I had that in me and was able to develop those qualities. I think that gave me the upper hand when it came to progressing and going into the professional level.”
By virtue of SuperSport’s relationship with Dutch club Feyenoord, Mokotjo was one of five youngsters who would spend three months in Europe on trial. His temperament and technique caught the eye and he earned himself a lucrative contract.
His game went up a notch in the Dutch Eredivisie, under coaches who relentlessly drilled him on the art of the pass and go. His positional awareness became second nature and he started finding himself in the right place at the right time. “I was psychologically and mentally strong,” he said. “I was like a sponge. I lived and breathed football. I was so hungry to learn. I asked an endless stream of questions and didn’t think about anything else.”
Mokotjo moved around in Netherlands – wearing the colours of Excelsior and PEC Zwolle (where he lifted the 2014 Dutch Cup) – before he signed a four year deal worth a reported €1.5 million (R21.45 million at the time) with FC Twente. In 2016 he was named captain and earned the nickname “The General” as a result of his no-nonsense leadership style.
It was then that Brentford came calling, and in 2017 his dream of playing in England finally materialised. When asked if he feels privileged to be living the fantasy he envisioned as a 10-year-old in the Free State, Mokotjo took his time to respond as if calculating the distance of his next pass.
“Privilege implies that I did not earn this,” he said, at last. “I feel blessed but I don’t feel privileged. I know how much I have worked, how much I have sacrificed to be here. This is something I have worked for. I’m in a constant pursuit of betterment. I deserve to be where I am.”
A deep thinker
Mokotjo answers questions only after a silent pause to think. He is conscious not to waste his breath on a sentence that isn’t worth uttering. On the field he is also economical in his passing. He collects from a teammate, gets his head up and shift the ball on, choosing the simple option more often than not.
There are certain footballers whose style of play neatly matches their persona off the field. Expletive-ridden tirades from Roy Keane and Gennaro Gattuso are in keeping with the manic ferocity with which they used to throw themselves into tackles.
Mokotjo is part of this unique tribe of footballers. “Measured,” is how he described himself on several occasions throughout our interview.
“People have often told me that the way I play is similar to who I am,” he said. “Off the pitch I’m calm. I’m collected. I’m balanced. On the pitch I’m the same. It’s always been this way.”
If you need convincing about his calm demeanour, beyond his statement, consider that in 319 appearances for club and country, he has only picked up 15 yellow cards and not a single red.
He is almost done with reading the thousand-page classic The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, for a second time. He does not own a PlayStation and said he must be one of only a few footballers who have never played FIFA. He is not obsessed with fashion or his image. He marches to a different beat to his contemporaries.
Despite him saying, “I feel old for my age”, he has just turned 28, still young for his position at the base of midfield.
His return to the Bafana Bafana fold is well earned. He is in the form of his life and was recently included in the top 50 players in the Championship according to Sky Sports.
‘There is no place like home’
A draw for South Africa on 24 March against Libya in Tunisia will be enough to earn qualification for the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), making up for Bafana’s failure to qualify for last year’s World Cup in Russia and the 2017 Afcon.
“We’ve let the nation down in recent years and we’re all conscious of rectifying that,” Mokotjo said. “The recent passing of Phil Masinga reminded us of that wonderful team in 1996 and how we were once the best on the continent. History can be daunting but it is also motivating. We believe we can reach those heights again.”
Mokotjo conveyed a sense of togetherness within the national team. He spoke of a camaraderie that can only come from shared backgrounds and a common tongue.
“Banter in Sesotho always makes me laugh twice as hard as banter in English,” he said. “There is no place like home and I love coming back.”
Representing an English Premier League club remains the ambition, and Mokotjo is determined to see that materialise one day. Until then, this soft-spoken midfield general will remain patient and focused; just as he’s always been.