I’m not done, says winning coach Jerry Tshabalala

Mamelodi Sundowns Ladies might have had a phenomenal year, but the man who guided them to become African champions has bigger plans for himself on a wider football stage.

Coach Jerry Tshabalala, 41, isn’t blown away by what he has achieved this year. He might have made history with Mamelodi Sundowns Ladies winning an unprecedented treble in African women’s football, but he is far from satisfied. 

Tshabalala cemented his name in the pantheon of great African coaches when he guided Sundowns to glory in the inaugural CAF Women’s Champions League on 19 November in Egypt. This title was sandwiched by a regional triumph in the form of Cosafa’s Champions League qualifying tournament on 4 September and more recently by retaining the domestic Hollywoodbets Super League title. But Tshabalala wants more. 

“There’s still the [proposed Fifa Women’s] Club World Cup, Women’s World Cup and the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations,” says Tshabalala. “I want these big time.

“I might have achieved these things but for me, honestly speaking, I was telling my players that we haven’t arrived yet because I could see they were behaving like we’ve arrived. To me, [winning the Champions League] feels like we have beaten Tuks. It feels like any other tournament. It hasn’t sunk in that what I’ve done is big. I don’t know why. I think it’s because I am hungry for a [big] win. Maybe I will see this once I’m retired. 

“I want to challenge myself but not with a South African national team,” says Tshabalala, in reference to the rule, passed in 2014, that women’s national teams can only be coached by women. 

23 November 2021: Mamelodi Sundowns Ladies’ Thalea Smidt hard at work at Chloorkop, home to the club’s training ground and administrative office.

“I’d be happy to someday see myself coaching a [women’s] national team in Africa, to go out there not to prove myself, but to challenge myself. I want to empower myself in the next two years, then I will be ready for the challenge of a national team … any other national team that is still willing to have a man coach their national team.”

The journey towards achieving that will require Tshabalala to upgrade his coaching badges as he only holds an A licence from the South African Football Association. This meant he could not be on the bench during the Champions League qualifying tournament or the event itself as the rules by the continent’s football governing body stipulate that only holders of a CAF A or pro licence can lead teams in the body’s interclub tournaments. 

Kappa, as Tshabalala is affectionately known, instead groomed Agnes Nkosi, who served as a player-coach in the qualifying tournament and Champions League. Tshabalala was on the stands during the games with Nkosi leading the team on the sidelines. 

“I have come a long way with Agnes. I started with her as a captain and she did a sterling job. I then saw potential in her and encouraged her to do courses so that we can work together in the future. I needed someone I could trust and groom. I knew that age was no longer on her side, therefore I felt that this would be a great opportunity for her to keep on doing what she loves most,” says Tshabalala.

23 November 2021: Coach Jerry Tshabalala.

Relating to this team

Although he is a strict coach who demands only the best from his players, Tshabalala has an open and warm relationship with them. “I think I need to give credit to Harry Masimula who used to be my manager at the pharmaceutical company [where] I used to work. I learnt a lot from him. As my manager, he was open to me and could talk to me about anything. That made things easier for me. So I said whatever Harry taught me, let me apply that to my team. 

“Even though other players felt scared to speak to me about things, it was important that they learnt and understand that we are all human and go through similar situations. I’d sometimes see on their [social media] statuses that they are going through a break-up. I would come to training and have a bit of a chat with them because I can see that they are not okay. So that made them be free with me. I am a father and mother to them. When it’s Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, I get lots of messages from them. It is important that I have this kind of relationship with them because some of them never got motherly or fatherly love.”  

Tshabalala’s football journey started in the Free State village of Phahameng, outside Bultfontein. He started playing the game at the age of six with a ball made from a plastic bottle filled with plastic bags. When he moved to Tembisa in Gauteng, his football career developed. He joined Tembisa Black Pirates as a 10-year-old and was given the nickname “Zane Moosa” as he was likened to the Mamelodi Sundowns dribbling wizard. 

“I didn’t even know who Zane was then, but I knew Harold Legodi and Andries ‘Panyaza’ Chitja. When the guys started calling me Zane, that’s when I saw that I could actually play. That means I am better than these guys,” he recalls. 

23 November 2021: From left-right: Lebogang Mabatle, Nonhlanhla Mthandi, Asa Rabolao (centre), Khunjulwa Mali and Bambanani Mbane of Mamelodi Sundowns Ladies at training.

Tshabalala spent four years at the club before moving to Birch Acres Football Club. “When I was 15, I got selected for the Eastern Gauteng team and I represented the team in the district competition, but I never made it into the provincial team. I could tell that I have a bit of talent. 

“When I was 18, I got an opportunity to go to Scotland for Ayr United Football Club. I was told that I was very good but because I was still young and naive, bengithanda izinto eziphume endleleni. Beloko ngigijimisa abosister babelungu (I liked wayward things. I was busy chasing after white women.) I had never seen them. I had never seen a girl with a pierced esibhonweni (navel). Those things excited me,” says Tshabalala.

“I would attend the morning session but would not go to the afternoon session. I would lock myself in the room with abosisters. They sent me back home. Then Mark Haskin’s uncle, Joey Lawrence, organised a trial for me at Blackpool [in England] but again the same problems came back. I then thought that football is not meant for me.”

Out and back again

Tshabalala didn’t leave the game outright. He played in the amateur ranks in Tembisa while also working for a pharmaceutical company. He only left that job early last year after Sundowns hired him full-time. 

“In 2003, I got a job at a company called Virbac as a production cleaner. I still remember the date: it was the 3rd of March when I started working. That’s where my dad used to work [too]. But I could only train with Tembisa Four Nations in the afternoon. The owner of the team, John Ubisi, would come and fetch me in his bakkie. I knocked off at 4pm and training was at 5pm. That year, we came second in the league; it was the year that Tuks got promoted with the likes of Lerato Chabangu and Robyn Johannes [in the team].”

The club was sold after that failure and Tshabalala lost interest in the beautiful game – only for his former club, Black Pirates, to revive it. “[The club’s coach] Martin [Matsitela] asked me to assist coaching the team. He said I was vocal and could read the game well and … would be an asset being the team’s assistant coach. I could see that I was gaining weight and I decided to quit and help Martin with the coaching.”

23 November 2021: A view of Mamelodi Sundowns Ladies training at Chloorkop.

In early 2010, he was roped in by the Mpumalanga-based Detroit Ladies after they had fired their coach. Tshabalala joined the club that campaigned in the Sasol League after five rounds of matches and led them to provincial glory. This earned them the ticket to represent Mpumalanga in the Sasol League National Championships, where they finished second after losing the final to Gauteng’s Palace Super Falcons. He was fired after that and would have short stints at Luso Africa before once again returning to his childhood club. 

“I went back to Tembisa Black Pirates to help Martin, but late in 2011 Sundowns coach Brian Dube passed on. I got a call from Sundowns. On the day I was told that the team is training at 4pm, and I would train the team instead of [having] an actual interview. I didn’t know I was one of four coaches they were trying out – we all came on different days. They then asked the players which coach they wanted and the players recommended me.”

It’s a decision that has worked out well for the club. But Tshabalala isn’t resting on his laurels, and they should know he has his sights on even bigger things.

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