When people meet celebrities, they tend to describe them afterwards as being “so down to earth”, as though that's a good thing in a celebrity. It's not – it's a bad thing, or at least a pointless thing. Most of us are down to earth, but only because we can’t get off the earth. We are normal people. Extraordinary people are above the earth and us, even before they leave the firm ground of anonymity. That's where they should be.
Andile Jali is not down to earth. If you’re a coach and you want to sign a humble servant of the game, or a consummate professional, then sign someone else. Mamelodi Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane would have known this when he signed Jali – not least because Mosimane is not exactly one for bowing and scraping himself, and it takes a hothead to know one.
So it was a bold (read: slightly crazy) decision to bring the midfielder back home from Belgium because Sundowns are an increasingly systematised team, reflecting Mosimane’s tactical vision, no matter the line-up. He’s not a rigid coach, but he doesn’t outsource his authority.
That’s a strong premise for drama right there, so New Frame went to Chloorkop to catch up with Jali. This is easier said than done. The man from Matatiele is known for his antagonistic attitude to the media. In the first interview he ever gave to a Belgian TV reporter, he answered the English questions in isiXhosa, despite his solid English. He must have a strong South African accent, thought the Belgians.
But Jali seemed in a generous mood when we spoke in the Chloorkop car park after training. It was hard not to feel good. The warm spring sunshine danced on the custard-yellow clubhouse, and the Downs players were mooching peacefully through the dappled shade of the gumtrees to their SUVs.
'Do what you have in mind'
Jali even tried out some humble remarks. “Sundowns play the style I want to play, and I’m learning many things here. Local football has changed since I was at [Orlando] Pirates. The teams are more aggressive. Last season I watched the PSL, and I saw how the smaller teams are competing against the bigger teams – and that means great football for the fans. That was part of the reason I came back home.”
In recent weeks, Jali has discovered exactly how aggressive the PSL has become. Against AmaZulu, his carelessness with possession in his own half led to an early goal for Usuthu in a match that ended in a 3-3 draw. But a strong appetite for risk is part of the Jali package. He does dicey things – turning into space when unsighted, spraying long passes with the outside of his boot. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Mosimane’s task is to ban some of these risks.
For Jali, however, any given coach should have more of an advisory role rather than an executive one. When I ask him for advice for similar gifted and versatile young players, he was frank about this unusual philosophy: “Do what you have in mind, more than what the coach is telling you. The coach can tell you something, but when you get to the field, it's something else.”
It was this view – plus a fiery temper – that made his stoic patience during his five years at KV Oostende fairly surprising because the move to Belgium was a step down in one sense, despite being a step forward. At Pirates, Jali was a big-city star: the box-to-box kingpin of a Soweto megaclub.
At Oostende, he was a newbie at a shoebox club with a tincan stadium in a drizzly seaport crawling with pensioners. Oostende is not known for anything at all. It has good seafood, but then so does any coastal town. Marvin Gaye lived in Oostende when he kicked his drug habit in the early 1980s. That's the most interesting story about the place – and an indication of its total lack of temptations other than small, juicy prawns.
Sticking it out
“It’s a quiet place,” says Jali. “Lots of old people stay there by the coast. It’s boring, but it’s nice. They are passionate about football. They love you even if you lose. They still come to the next game. Then you know you won’t lose at home.”
Don’t be deceived by the ramshackle stadiums: the standard in Belgium’s top flight is considerably higher than in PSL. The World Cup heroics of the Belgian national side offer one indication of the country’s domestic quality. But another is the simple fact that the PSL’s best player made a modest impact in Belgium, despite adapting well to the demands of his holding role and becoming a fixture at Oostende. Jali explains this by saying the club priced him out of the resale market, but he didn’t resent it.
“I wanted to move to a bigger side, but the team didn’t want to let me go,” he says. “They put a high price on me. But it was good for me to stay in Oostende. We built the name of the side, and we did great. We qualified for the Europa League and played against Olympique Marseilles.”
To his credit, for all his flashing wilfulness on the pitch, he is not one to give up easily. Many South African players have returned home after a season or two at a modest side. It’s not surprising, as the hazards of the experience are real: loneliness, miserable weather, dictatorial coaches, modest pay, incidents of racism, the pervasive social coldness of northern Europe. But there is also a romantic courage that defines a journeyman footballer’s life – a sort of working-class honour notwithstanding the middle-class salaries.
This working-class honour doesn't require deference, of which Jali is incapable. It does require patience, and he found the patience to see out his contract and give his all while doing so. It helped that his wife, Nonhle Ndala, a glamorous entrepreneur and fitness fanatic, and their children visited him regularly. Missing them was another reason for him to come home.
“For me it was a good thing to go and stay in Oostende,” says Jali. “I quickly understood their football and gelled with the team. The fans love me there, and they were angry when I left. They didn’t like it. But they said, at least you’re going back home, and not joining another Belgian team.”
Guarded by the Dog
Former Bafana Bafana coach Clive Barker discovered Jali at a youth trials tournament in Port Elizabeth in 2008, and recommended him to the University of Pretoria, his first professional club, who signed him the following year. “The Dog”, who is known for his knack for spotting talent, reckons he noticed the then 18-year-old’s massive potential instantly.
“I can remember it very well. At a free kick, I said: ‘Watch this kid, he’s going to put this ball in the back of the net.’ And he walks and curls it round over the wall just as I had forecast.”
Barker backs Jali to the hilt. “He’s a pleasure because he’s different. People might not like it – people might think he’s strutting around like a peacock, but believe me, that’s a winning mentality. He’s my man, and I’m very pleased to say that I was associated with him all this time. I hope he can still fully become the player that he can be, and that Bafana can be built around him.”
There’s the rub: at 28, Jali has not yet fully become the player he can be, and that frustrating paradox is true of countless South African footballers. Jali is a classic example of the erratic streak that plagues our best talents. He has the ability to do most things beautifully: pass, trap, tackle, turn, shoot, press, dribble. But he doesn’t consistently execute those abilities, and makes many more mistakes than he would if he were the product of the well-honed Brazilian or Belgian youth development systems.
Boss of himself
But Jali, hailing from the nearly coachless hills of Matatiele, is, in essence, self-taught. The option of playing risky football was not drummed out of him during his formative years to the extent that, as a pro, he will make a terrible pass and a brilliant pass within seconds of each other. His Brazilian and Belgian doppelgangers would do the simple things well and try the complicated thing much less often, if at all.
But Barker says it’s simple: Jali should and must be the boss of himself. His brilliance is rooted in his ego. “If I were coaching Jali, I would tell him he’s the best every day. That would bring the best out of him. Like I did with Linda Buthelezi. Eventually Linda really believed he was a Mercedes-Benz.
“What you’ve got to do as a coach with Jali is let him express himself, let him play off the cuff. He wants to go out there and dominate proceedings. And that’s exactly what coaches fall foul of. He wants to do it his way, and maybe their way also. You’ve just got to be sensible about it.”
Barker concedes that the game has changed in South Africa and abroad – it’s faster, more demanding, more multifaceted than before. “But I don’t think it's as romantic. I don’t think it’s as good as it was when players could put their foot on the ball. I can’t imagine Jomo Sono, Ace Ntsoelengoe and Lawrence Chelin charging all over the field like they would be expected to these days. They used to put their foot on the ball.
“So we need to give a bit of thought to where we are going in South African football. Do we have a certain style like we used to? And the results over the years seem to prove that that the old style [is] more effective. There is a way for South Africans to play, and we haven’t quite got it.”
The prickly, flawed brilliance of Andile Jali seems like a clue to that riddle. But for Jali, there is no mystery because the answer is simple: give him the ball.
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