How Thamsanqa Gabuza got his groove back

The burly forward has gone from a figure of ridicule booed by his own fans at Orlando Pirates to a darling at SuperSport United, whose MTN8 ambitions rests on his broad shoulders. 

Track I: John Legend – All of You 

At first it’s hard to decipher what he is saying, let alone comprehend the fact that he is actually singing. It’s only when John Legend’s All of You is audible in the background, inside Orlando Pirates’ team bus, that you realise what Thamsanqa Gabuza is mouthing off in a cartoonish manner. The striker excitedly gives the “DJ” the nod that this is the one. 

It’s not his singing skills, or lack thereof, that draws you into this candid video, but it’s the lyrics. 

‘Cause all of me

Loves all of you

Love your curves and all your edges

All your perfect imperfections

Give your all to me

I’ll give my all to you

You’re my end and my beginning

Even when I lose I’m winning

‘Cause I give you all, all of me

And you give me all, all of you

It’s easy to see why Gabuza would be drawn to this song. His relationship with Pirates’ supporters was complicated. The Ghost didn’t love his “curves and edges” while he felt that he gave his all to them. But his “all” wasn’t good enough for the Buccaneers, who want to challenge for every trophy on offer. The Ghost and Pirates wanted a prolific striker, Gabuza wasn’t that. At best he is a bulldozer, like his nickname Gandaganda (tractor) alludes. The towering forward keeps defenders busy, he is strong aerially and is able to hold the ball well. He scores now and then. 

Pirates’ game plan didn’t suit him, the club wanted a mobile striker who will rattle the back of the net consistently. When Gabuza didn’t do that, his own fans turned on him which resulted in his outburst at Peter Mokaba Stadium last year. Gabuza took off his jersey, threw it at Pirates’ supporters and stormed off the pitch just before halftime, after Pirates took the lead against Black Leopards. Before that, his own fans had booed him in frustration at his wasteful nature in front of goal. 

His stunt, which resulted in him being sent off, was his only reaction to the turbulent relationship he had with his former team’s supporters. He had kept quiet, taken it on the chin and carried on with his work before he reached his breaking point. 

“What can I say, as a person you have to know what you want out of life,” Gabuza said at Megawatt Park in Sunninghill, the training base of his new home SuperSport United. “If you know what you want in life, you will not listen to anyone outside the field who will derail you from getting to your destination. You must also know where you come from. I know that about me, where I came from and what I want to get out of life, nothing or no one fazes me.”    

Track II: The Beatles – All You Need Is Love

The love he has been showered with at Matsantsantsa a Pitori has seen the 32-year-old find his groove. He has found his scoring touch too, netting three goals in three games on SuperSport’s road to the MTN8 final, where they will face Highlands Park at Orlando Stadium on Saturday 5 October. At Pirates last season he scored two goals in 17 games in all competitions. 

“When you’re in a loving family that nurtures its children, you feel at home,” Gabuza said. “I have received a lot of love here. That’s why I am working the way I have been. Love is important to get the best out of a player. It starts from training, how they treat and support you, how the coach [Kaitano Tembo] gives you instructions and how he treats you.”

The love Gabuza has for Tembo is mutual. “Gabuza is one player I have always admired, especially when he was still at Golden Arrows,” Tembo said. “His work ethic is unbelievable. He is a very good outlet. Even when he was playing at Orlando Pirates, he was always a problem. I always used to worry when I see him come on because I knew that your defence isn’t going to rest when he is around. That’s what he gives us. 

“He fits in very well in our structure because he has a good work ethic and at the same time he needs to be appreciated and given a little bit of love. That’s what we are trying to give him so that he can really express himself. He will make mistakes, we understand that, but we need to give him a little bit of encouragement and love.”

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SuperSport haven’t just showered Gabuza with love, they have also played to his strength as their point of reference in attack. Bradley Grobler, his strike partner, is never too far from Gabuza to benefit from his work ethic and bulldozing way. But the lad from KwaZulu-Natal isn’t carried away by the plaudits he has received since switching from Soweto to the country’s capital. 

“I hear people praising me, but it’s still early. I haven’t done anything,” he said. “The coach encourages me every day to work even harder. That’s what I try to do, to give my all every day and ensure that I leave everything on the field. But like I said, it’s too early for me to say that I have arrived. There’s still a long way to go. The only time I will feel that I have succeeded is when I win the league with this team. This is one big family with a lot of love. When we have to work, we work hard and when we joke, we have fun. Everything is here. I can’t put into words what I am getting here.”

Despite his change of fortunes, and everything he endured at Pirates, Gabuza speaks about the club with pride. He did after all spend more time, six years, at Pirates than at any club in his professional career, which started at Durban Stars before he made his breakthrough at Golden Arrows more than a decade ago. But a year before Gabuza was paid to do what he loves he lost his father, Patrick, who was also his biggest fan and inspiration. 

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“His support was immense. He is the one who took me to stadiums. He bought me boots and everything I need. He would attend almost every match I played in,” Gabuza said. “Football is my life. There’s nothing I love more than football, that when I wake up in the morning I think about. It’s more than just my job. It’s my everything. I fell in love with football from a young age. My father shared that love with me. He used to buy me balls and everything I needed.”

How then did he handle realising his dream without the man who made it possible? 

“You have to accept things that you don’t have control over so that you heal,” Gabuza said. “It might be hard, but you have to accept them for you to be able to move on and function. Things happen for a reason, it’s all God’s plan. I always tell myself that he is watching over me wherever he is, so in a way he has seen how my life has panned out. I am happy that I turned professional. I believe that he has seen me achieve that, and I am sure he is proud because he is the reason why I managed to be where I am today.”

Gabuza has a reputation for not being a fan of interviews. He does them grudgingly, and when he does more often than not he is very guarded, responding in short and dismissive answers that don’t give you a glimpse into his life. But once he drops that guard, he is engaging and funny. 

The front he puts on, as an unapproachable tough guy, is a defence mechanism to deal with the abuse and the criticism he has endured. You don’t get hurt if you’re badass because no one dares to mess with you. His other coping mechanism is jokes. Those who know him well, know him as a “class clown” who is always cracking jokes. When he “sang” All of You, it was the “class clown” in him in action.   

Track III: Kanye West – Homecoming 

But if there is a song that Gabuza should be singing this week in anticipation of his return to Orlando Stadium for the MTN8 final, while his former team is plugging holes that were pierced in their troubled ship, it would be Kanye West’s Homecoming. For starters, it doesn’t need vocal gymnastics like All of You

I’m coming home again,

Do you think about me now and then?

Do you think about me now and then?

‘Cause I’m coming home again

Gabuza’s homecoming in Orlando isn’t just about returning to his old stomping ground, it’s also about returning to the stadium where he lifted his first trophy as a professional footballer with Abafana Bes’thende in 2009. A decade later, he can repeat that feat with SuperSport who are appearing in the final of this competition for the third year in a row. 

“Just thinking about the 2009 MTN8 final brings joy to me,” Gabuza said. “I’ll never forget us beating Ajax Cape Town 6-0. To go back there, to play in another final is great. That stadium has good memories. We worked well as a team at Golden Arrows. We loved one another. It’s the same thing that’s here at SuperSport. I have joined a loving family. We work well together, and we all give it our all. I was still young then, winning a cup at that time was something. My mother cried tears of joy. I gave her that ring [that goes with the MTN8 trophy]. She still has it today.”

Gabuza laughs when I ask him who will get his ring this time around. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We have a game to play first.” 

If his previous stints have taught Gabuza anything, it’s to not get carried away or reach a comfort zone. Any oversight will be punished by Highlands who want to be on the podium, for the first time in the club’s history, when Queen’s We Are The Champions is played at Orlando Stadium to celebrate the 2019 MTN8 final winners.  

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