Hendrick “Pule” Ekstein embodies both the good and the bad of South African football. The Kaizer Chiefs’ creative midfielder has a bag full of tricks but more often than not, those tricks don’t provide much of a treat in terms of goals. You can count on one hand the number of goals he has scored – five – in competitive matches since his promotion to the Chiefs first team in 2014.
Ekstein laughs before responding to why he doesn’t score regularly with all the talent he has. “A lot of people tell me, either face to face or on social media, that the only thing missing from my game is goals,” Ekstein says. “A lot of people are helping me to improve that aspect of my game. I stay behind at training to work on it. I go to the Chiefs Village even on our off days to work on my finishing.
“I don’t know what happens to me when I get in front of goals. Maybe if I had grown up in a development structure I would have refined that aspect of my game. That didn’t happen, so I have to find ways to solve this. But I will eventually get it right.”
Age isn’t on the 27-year-old’s side. Thanks to proper training, his age peers are at the peak of their careers. But Ekstein is self-made. He only joined Chiefs’ development side in his 20s, by then it was too late to work on certain technical aspects of his game. “If I had grown up in an academy, I would have matured earlier and improved my game. I have to make do with what I have,” Ekstein says.
For the most part, the scouting network in South Africa relies on luck. A few teams have proper networks that allows them to search, identify and then groom talent from a young age. But most of these networks are in urban areas and well-developed townships. The lad from Bekkersdal slipped through the cracks, like many players do. By the time players like Ekstein are identified and are brought into a structured environment, it is very difficult to fix some errors in their game. The midfielder only tasted international football at senior national team level.
From miner to Chiefs’ darling
Despite all of that, Ekstein’s rise to stardom is inspiring. “I get emotional when I talk about it,” Ekstein says. “I joined the mine [Kloof Gold] because of my football talent. They also had a football team. I was 17 when I joined their team. I started working at the mine when I was 21. I worked with explosives. I was the one doing the bombing to pave the way for others to find the gold. I did that because I had to provide for my family. At the end of the day you have to provide for your family and not wait for handouts. I wanted to provide for my daughter Kamogelo, who was a one-year-old at the time … I didn’t want anyone doing things for my daughter while I was still alive.”
Ekstein wants to give his children and aspiring footballers from his township what he didn’t have growing up. So he founded the Hendrick Ekstein Foundation, which hosted its inaugural tournament for under-13s, under-15s and under-17s in September. Off the field, he caters for his children and family in ways that his father didn’t.
“I know him. But you know in the township fathers just disappear,” Ekstein says. “I was 10 or 11 when he disappeared. That shaped me to aim to be a better father than he was. When I signed my professional contract with Chiefs, I knew that I had to take care of my older brother Patrick and my children because they’re a big part of my life.”
A couple of years ago, Ekstein was just a Chiefs’ supporter. “Pule” speaks with pride about the day he first donned Chiefs’ jersey, going from supporter to player. “We were playing against Mamelodi Sundowns’ development side,” an excited Ekstein explains. “I arrived late for the game because I stayed far away. I took an hour-long train ride to the match. By the way, the train I took, Itu [Amakhosi captain, Itumeleng Khune], also used it when he was a kid to go to Chiefs for trials. We used the same station.
“The game was in the second half when I arrived. We were trailing Sundowns 2-0. I assisted the first goal and scored the second. The match ended 2-2. The rest is history. I am proud of where I am today. I am sure that wherever my mom is, she is proud of me, seeing her son living his dream.”
Awakening the Soweto giant
Ekstein’s mother passed away when he was 16. His mother’s death and his father’s absence forced him to grow up quickly. “I didn’t think that I would be here when I was working at the mine,” Ekstein says. “But it was always my dream to play for Chiefs, a team I grew up supporting. I am living my dream. I told some boy when I was working at the mine: ‘One day I will be a professional player.’ I didn’t know how, but I knew that I would make it. Some people might say that I am arrogant, but the way I played football, I saw that I could go far with it.”
Amakhosi are looking to go far after three barren seasons, an anomaly for South Africa’s cup kings. Chiefs have not only finished with nothing in three years, they’ve also allowed the so-called small teams to believe that they can box with Amakhosi. Giovanni Solinas is slowly awakening the Soweto giant. But before he can think about bringing silverware to Naturena, the Italian coach’s first task is to return the element of fear on Chiefs’ opponents, a psychological advantage lost after Steve Komphela’s conservative term.
A win over archrivals Orlando Pirates in the Soweto Derby at FNB Stadium on Saturday will give the club the confidence it needs to jump start their season. “The team will do well if we can infuse winning into our DNA,” Ekstein says. “We’re Kaizer Chiefs, we should win every game we play. We know that’s not easy but that shouldn’t stop us from trying.”
Ekstein is a lot like the Soweto Derby: flashy and entertaining but lacks goals. His every touch will get loud cheers in front of a sold-out crowd at the stadium. His challenge is to reward his fans with goals.
“I didn’t think I would play at this level because of where I come from, but I worked hard to make it happen. I am happy that despite everything, I am here now and when I step into the field fans are happy to see me. I know it’s not all about me but about the team. My aim is to repay that love.”