Kaitano Tembo waddled into the Orlando Stadium auditorium wearing a dejected face and with his shoulders drooping after winning his first trophy as a head coach. The SuperSport United coach’s assertive baritone voice joined him late into the MTN8 final’s post-match press conference after leading Matsatsantsa a Pitori to a 1-0 win over Highlands Park.
His voice kept cracking and he sounded strained. Instead of basking in the glory, he was belatedly mourning the death of Thamsanqa Gabuza’s son. The Matsatsantsa striker, who put on a Man of the Match performance in the final, lost his child on Monday but he didn’t tell the team because he didn’t want to distract SuperSport ahead of this crucial encounter.
He told them about his loss and the burial only after they lifted the first trophy of the season. Tembo struggled to celebrate this victory after hearing the news, saddened by Gabuza’s loss and conflicted by his selflessness. A part of him was angry at Gabuza that he went through this alone, without the support of his teammates in a club that’s bound by unity and which has created a family environment.
The other part was moved that a player would put his team first, before his own suffering. That Gabuza would put Tembo first in the head coach’s quest to win his first trophy at a club where his qualities were doubted a lot, evident by the umpteen times he served as caretaker coach and how SuperSport dragged their feet in appointing him permanently last year.
‘It just killed everything’
“I didn’t expect him to do that and I wouldn’t encourage him to do it,” Tembo said. “But he did what he did for the badge. He didn’t want to upset the camp because we were facing a very crucial game.
“For me, it just killed everything [when I heard the news]. I see someone who is committed, someone who a lot of players can learn from. He went through that and still played the way he did, getting the Man of the Match award. A performance like that, at the back of what had happened, I dedicate this win and this cup to him. It’s already hitting me that someone could do this for the team and for me. I appreciate that but at the same time I am also hurting.”
Tembo wasn’t the only one hurting, Gabuza’s teammates also struggled to deal with their victory after hearing what the 32-year-old had gone through. Their grey suits and the silver MTN8 trophy were the only things that shone when they left Orlando Stadium on Saturday night.
“We were all surprised,” Ronwen Williams said. “It killed the whole mood. Even our singing now in the dressing room was different because in every victory we sing afterwards. Today it wasn’t the same because of the news that we heard. It’s not nice. He is a nice person and for him to do that shows he’s got balls and he is a man.”
A never-ending apprenticeship
The MTN8, even with its attendant sadness, is a fitting way for Tembo to celebrate his 20th anniversary at SuperSport. The Zimbabwean joined Matsatsantsa in 1999 from Seven Stars. He spent seven years playing for the club before hanging up his boots in 2006. Two years before his retirement, he won this trophy under its previous guise as the SAA Super Eight. He earned it the hard way as a coach. He first had to serve his apprenticeship, coaching every division at SuperSport from the Under-17s, to the Under-19s and reserve team. Then he was assistant of the first team, where he held the head coach post in the interim a number of times following the departures of coaches like Gordon Igesund, Cavin Johnson, Stuart Baxter and Eric Tinkler.
“There were moments when I was interim coach and I would be scared. If you don’t get scared you will be too complacent,” Tembo said. “You aren’t going to concentrate in terms of doing your job. Those are the moments that were really building me and giving me a lot of confidence because in the games that I managed as interim, I think I only lost once. That gives you confidence as a coach and as a person because it can be demoralising when you are putting in a lot of work and you aren’t getting the results. But at the same time I knew that the bosses can see my qualities and my abilities, but they are preparing me and whenever the time is right they will tell me. This is what happened, they just said take the team.”
SuperSport’s 2017 CAF Confederation Cup campaign offered Tembo a perfect opportunity to show what he has learned having worked with distinguished coaches like Pitso Mosimane, Gavin Hunt, Igesund and Baxter. Tembo led the club past a group that had the mighty TP Mazembe of the Democratic Republic of Congo along with Guinea’s Horoya and CF Mounana of Gabon before Tinkler took over in the quarterfinals. Finishing second in that group was impressive, but the standing ovation SuperSport got after drawing 2-2 in Lubumbashi against the five-time CAF Champions League winners who have some of the most demanding fans in the continent is an experience Tembo will never forget.
“That was the starting point for me,” Tembo said. “Stuart Baxter gave me that opportunity, he believed in me. If someone can say, ‘You have worked with me, I know you know what you are supposed to be doing, take the team’. That really struck me because I thought, this guy believes in me. I didn’t want to disappoint him. It started with a league game against [Bidvest] Wits, he just didn’t come. He got sick a day before the game and he said Kaitano take over the team.
“I said, ‘What is going on here? Is it a setup or what?’ But I realised that this is someone who believes in me. The first thing he said is if we lose, I will take the responsibility and if we win you will take the glory. It’s not easy to find people like that and I appreciate that. Stuart Baxter played a big role in my development, and the other coaches I have worked with as well.”
Proving doubters wrong
Despite that, SuperSport still overlooked him for the head coach position. The club appointed Tinkler, who clashed with senior players, lost the dressing room and then jumped before he was kicked out. All of that happened in eight months. Tembo once again had to take over in the interim. The club struggled to get the coach they were looking for which led to them appointing Tembo as head coach on the eve of the 2018/19 season. He led them to the final of the MTN8, losing to Benni McCarthy’s Cape Town City in Durban. He made up for that disappointment with the victory in Orlando.
“It means a lot as the first trophy,” Tembo said. “It gives me hope and confidence. It shows that I might be in the right direction because it motivates you, when you work hard and win something, that boosts your confidence. This also says that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. I can’t get big-headed now that we have won this cup. There are still many aspects that I would love to improve on. We can’t really rest on our laurels, otherwise it becomes a problem. This can only motivate me and keep me going.”
Gabuza’s selfless act is thanks largely to the family environment Tembo has created after he took over. Since his blood is blue, he knows what makes SuperSport tick, which is why he was able to manage the player power that got rid of Tinkler. He got the buy-in of the senior players and was also able to inject new blood into the ageing team that he inherited. He returned SuperSport to its roots by promoting a number of the club’s youngsters, some of whom he worked with in the juniors.
“What drives me is the players, the bond that I have with the players,” Tembo said. “We fight. But we fight for the common cause. We always come to an agreement that’s for the good of the team. It’s not like it’s always smooth sailing. There are certain times where we fight. It’s never personal, and they know that I don’t take things personal. Sometimes they will tell me, ‘Fuck off!’ and I will say, ‘Okay, it’s fine’. But it’s not personal because we all want to win. Once you create an environment where we can talk and argue but still come to an agreement, that’s the environment that I want. I want players to be free, comfortable, able to express their opinions and still enjoy coming to training.”
Love for the beautiful game
SuperSport will hold the MTN8 for a year, but the attention will quickly go to the Telkom Knockout that will be launched on Wednesday 9 October. It’s a reminder of how fleeting the focus is in victory while defeats linger longer in the memory, in some instances for eternity. But regardless of what curveballs football throws at Tembo, he takes everything on the chin because of what the beautiful game means to him. The love for the game and the badge that he preaches is what drove Gabuza to do what he did.
“I’ve been in football since I was six,” Tembo said. “Football also paid a part of my school fees. When I was young, I used to play for a second division team while I was still at school. During those days, we used to get paid whenever we won a match. I used some of that money to buy school shoes, and so football is all that I know. This is the talent that God gave me. That’s why I take it very seriously, it is something that has made me who I am. It puts food on the table. So, I take my job very seriously. I am never going to take it for granted. I am going to be involved in football until the day I die.”